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The Ragged Man’s Complaint by James Robertson

B&W Publishing, 1993, 158 p.

 The Ragged Man’s Complaint cover

This is Robertson’s second collection of short stories, after Close.
Giraffe is told from the viewpoint of a worker in a Safari Park and gives a picture of all the dodgy practices that go on there.
In Plagues a man who works in a bookshop sees frogs everywhere and is worried that’s only the beginning.
Screen Lives displays a woman and a man developing their relationship by acting out lines from the film Notorious.
In The Jonah one of two men hitch-hiking in a backwater reflects on how to turn his life around.
The Claw is the withered appendage of the HIV positive narrator’s grandfather, “caught between hope and history,” in a care home. A monitor of his future.
Squibs contains four vignettes a couple of which approach the style of Iain Crichton Smith’s Munro stories.
Bastards relates an encounter in a pub, where a man mistakes another for “the cunt my wife ran off wi’.”
Facing It is a vignette even shorter than those in Squibs wherein a man sees his innards cascade into the toilet bowl and realises he can no longer ignore his medical problem.
The unarguably apocalyptic The End is Nigh, told in almost biblical cadences, has a Science-Fictional feel as a prophet extends his sermon while wandering the countryside.
There are reflections on writing, relative privilege and Scotland in The Mountain, where for a few months in the winter following his grandfather’s death a man occupies the ancestral croft.
What Love Is examines the distance between married couple Dan and Joan, between men’s lives and women’s. “Dan isn’t frightened of other lives. He imagines them all the time. The only life he is frightened of is his own.”
Portugal 5, Scotland 0 (the comma is Robertson’s – or his publisher’s.) During the game concerned two men in a pub take to discussing Hugh MacDiarmid, poetry and Scotland’s cultural reawakening, turning back only after the game is finished, since the football has begun not to matter so much.
In Tilt Alan’s friend Mike tells him the only question in the world worth asking is, “What’s it about?” (Note the absence of “all”.) Alan’s increasingly shiftless feeling comes to a head one day after an encounter with a recalcitrant pinball machine and Mike’s sister, Mona.
Surprise, Surprise. A man accompanies three girls to a party and while there finds his evening is described in a book he picks from a shelf.
In the absence of the real thing, the Tories having won a General Election again (the book’s publication date suggests the 1992 one) Robert occasionally retreats into The Republic of the Mind. “I just think what a waste of time it is, having to wait to be a normal country, having to waste all this energy identifying ourselves. So I bugger off anyway. To the Scottish Republic of the mind.” On an epiphany he thinks, “You had to come upon it, or it came upon you.” He also realises, “how nobody ever assumed their neighbour was a Tory in a public house in Scotland,” and “We’re a nation of philosophers … at the end of the day. A nation of fucking philosophers.” That expletive is a brilliant piece of emphasis by Robertson. It demonstrates both the glory and the despair of the thought it qualifies.
Someone, perhaps homeless, perhaps not, is Pretending to Sleep. For all the ones who cannot do it for themselves. It is a strange existence. “Funny how in the cells they come to check if you’re not dead. Out here, out in the open, nobody checks” but, “Just by lying there, pretending to sleep, you get under their skin …. deep into them.” It’s a horror story. But not for the pretender.

Pedant’s corner:- staunch (stanch,)

The Return of John Macnab by Andrew Greig

Headline Review, 1996, 285 p.

The Return of John Macnab cover

This, Greig’s second novel, takes as its template John Buchan’s John Macnab which I reviewed here. Once again three men – but this time not “gentlemen” – form an alliance to poach a salmon, a brace of grouse and a stag respectively from three different estates, Mavor, Inchallian and Balmoral, and then deliver the poached items back to the “owners”, as a challenge to “absentee landowners and the Criminal Justice Act” and as a wager to the three estates’ owners; issuing a statement to this effect in the Scotsman newspaper. The “John Macnab” here comprises at first Neil Lindores, Murray Hamilton and Alasdair Sutherland, each with his own special talent useful for the enterprise, but not long after arriving in “a small Highland town” Lindores is sussed out by local journalist Kirsty Fowler who is excited by the project and offers to help them.

Greig’s background in climbing comes to the fore in his description of the scramble needed to get to the pool for the salmon poach and his life as a poet in the sentence, “Seldom had a celebration broken up so fast, as if someone had announced an evening of performance poetry would commence in thirty seconds.”

His descriptions of landscape are loving and there is the odd reflection on the condition of Scotland. On feeling himself squeezed as at the narrow waist of an hour-glass with more past than future as the minutes ran through Neil thinks, “What a depressingly Scottish image. Its negativity was another thing that was true about his country. It went along with tholing, bearing, putting up with, and taking a certain satisfaction in the expected bad news when it came.” Yes indeed. That’s Calvinism for you. Neil does go on, though, to sense “it was a wrong picture. He was groping for another, still true but more affirmative.” At another point, “He hugged Murray. This was a first – they were Scottish, after all.”

The big problem John Macnab faces here is Balmoral. It is late summer and HRH is in residence. Consequently the place is hoaching with Special Services, Army and Police as well as the usual ghillies and gamekeepers. The authorities cannot ignore the possibility that John Macnab is merely a cover for a terrorist attempt on HRH’s life.

The text occasionally refers to Buchan’s novel, as it has to, and even critiques it in mentioning that Buchan’s women are really just chaps – though with (small) breasts. Greig’s intent is somewhat different; and his women are certainly far from chaps. Kirsty is as rounded and complex a character as you could wish (such women are a common factor in Greig’s novels) and is thoroughly involved in the poaching efforts – as are Sutherland’s and Hamilton’s wives and the former’s family – at least in the second one. Sutherland’s wife, though she has had an affair tells Kirsty she would kill him if he were to do the same. Ellen Stobo, a policewoman attached to the security services but who finds herself coming to an understanding of John Macnab, is also well drawn. To be fair to Buchan he was writing adventure tales for a male audience in a time that was less aware. Greig is by far the better examiner of the human condition though.

The John Macnab template – while driving the events of the plot – at times gets in the way of Greig’s greater facility with personal relationships but in the end his own concerns overwhelm Buchan’s. Still, he nearly overdoes it, veering very close to the tradition of the Scottish sentimental novel (compare Iain Banks’s Espedair Street,) in the final pages. But he is too canny to yield a conventional ending.

That template means that The Return of John Macnab is not quite up there with Greig’s best – all the other novels of his I have read; see “Andrew Greig” in my categories – but for an exploration of human uncertainties, hesitations, lust for life and willingness to take risks, emotional as well as physical, it’s still pretty damn good.

Pedant’s corner:- midgies (midges – which spelling does occur in the book once but otherwise with the extraneous “i”,) swopped (swapped,) “‘but there a problem comes with it’” (but there’s a problem,) autogiro (autogyro,) hoochin’ (usually spelled – and pronounced – hoachin’,) the main work party were loading gear (the party was,) none of the computer systems were down (none was down,) a missing end quote mark.

Dream Paris by Tony Ballantyne

Solaris, 2015, 443 p.

 Dream Paris cover

This is the sequel to Ballantyne’s earlier Dream London which I reviewed here. Its first sentence riffs on the famous opening line of William Gibson’s Neuromancer. Ballantyne’s comes closer to making sense though.

Seventeen year-old Anna Sinfield is trying to get her life together in what is left over after the fall of Dream London and the restoration of something like normality. She is given a fortune scroll by Mr Twelvetrees, a man with faceted, insect-like eyes. The scroll reveals she will meet her mother again, whom she had thought dead in Dream London’s demise; but it will be in Dream Paris. Twelvetrees has his own reasons for wishing her to go to there as he is an agent of the British Government. To protect her on the journey she is assigned a bodyguard, Francis, whose backpack trails a wire behind him – Theseus style – so they can find their way back. Both the English Channel and the rivers in Dream France are infested by aquatic dinosaurs and the French distinction between the second person pronouns tu and vous has become highly elaborate with up to 17 degrees of superiority/inferiority capable of being expressed. (Ballantyne’s treatment of this linguistic quirk wasn’t entirely consistent, though.)

There are some longueurs, particularly on Anna’s and Francis’s journey to Paris and even some while they are there. To Anna’s disappointment her mother sends several messages to the effect that she should not come. But Anna has the fortune scroll. She will meet her mother no matter what. And it seems everyone, the revolutionary Committee for Public Safety (a very slight adjustment in title by Ballantyne to the one in our history,) the Prussians who have been at war with Dream France for centuries, the British Government, has their own reasons for finding Anna’s mother.

Francis’s wire (in the Dream World its mechanism becomes apparent) criss-crosses the streets of Paris and provides any British citizens stranded in the Dream World – or indeed anyone else – who wish to do so with the means to find their way (back) to London. It also allows travel in the opposite direction.

In the Dream World the counting/numbering system is peculiar. In Dream London there had been no prime numbers, and mathematicians went mad; here there are no fractions, making shapes and geometry different. The chapters count down in the dream numbering system from Silver then Twenty-three through numbers such as blue and (a feeling of fulfilment) down to Zero. Count-downs are of course a harbinger of a significant event. In this regard mention of an Integer Bomb is a foreshadowing.

Dream Paris suffers from the drawback of most sequels in that the unique nature of its predecessor cannot be repeated. The plot here is not so much one of restoration of the natural order of things as it was in Dream London (even if that wasn’t truly achieved) as that of a thriller; albeit one with elements that verge on being bonkers and a vision of an extremely odd Paris.

Pedant’s corner:- “The sound of violins wove their way..” (the sound wove its way,) a moments rest (moment’s,) “it was important not show any emotion” (not to show,) Mr Twelvetrees’ (x2, Mr Twelvetrees’s,) “I folded up the wallet up” (one “up” is sufficient.) “It fell back onto road,” (onto the road,) “swept away in whirl” (in a whirl,) sat (x2; seated, or sitting,) towns of unspeakably loveliness (unspeakable,) “had a wall around it to” (too,) “I don’t mean like strong like expresso is at home” (one like is enough,) but this gentlemen (gentleman,) Entschuldigen (Entschuldigung,) for hundreds miles (hundreds of miles.) “‘And now I must now report back’” (only one “now” is necessary.) “‘Someone came in rushing in’” (one “in” only,) “from a word written on the side ‘Abattoir’” (is missing a full stop after side,) “‘We are both that same’” (the same,) that that (only one needed,) “that feeling of the meaningless of it all” (meaninglessness,) “that complimented the taste “ (complemented,) “right next me”(to me,) “‘if you wish to continue, than I shall wish you good luck’” (then I shall wish you..) the crowd were (the crowd was, [as found later on the same page,]) placenta (of a fish????) “‘And now the rest of the table were doing the same’” (the rest was….) “I didn’t want it know” (to know,) “‘You think you could you kill your dinner?’” (You think you could kill your dinner,) teeth made for ripping flash (flesh.) Men and woman (women,) the point of infinity were the two sides converged (where the two sides,) miniscule (minuscule.) “At that they all gazed at me open-mouthed at that” (only one “at that” I feel,) “‘I grew up here.Surely’” (is missing the word break,) who knows what he was doing (should be “knew what”; or “is doing”,) “More to the point would have you done otherwise?” (would you have done,) “‘Francis what’s going?’” (what’s going on,) to note the Francis had done (that Francis had,) “‘You don’t see very happy, Anna’” (seem,) a welcoming committee were drawn up (a committee was drawn up,) sipping at glass (at a glass,) “A child. What had happened to their eyes” (its eyes.)

David Golder by Irène Némirovsky

Vintage, 2007, 159 p plus xii p Introduction. Translated from the French (Éditions Bernard Grasset, 1929) by Sandra Smith.

David Golder cover

This was Némirovsky’s second novel and in it she was to some extent finding her feet but it still exhibits some of the concerns and influences which were to dominate her work.

David Golder is a financier born into poverty in the Russian Empire but who now lives in France. He has a wife, Gloria, who, despite him lifting her out of the same poverty as his, wants his money but nothing else, indeed is unsatisfied with all he has provided for her. They have an indulged flibbertigibbet of a daughter, Joyce, who also only sees Golder as a source of funds. The crisis of the book begins when his business partner Simon Marcus – whom Golder is tired of bailing out – commits suicide after Golder refuses to help him out of financial trouble again. There was something about this that somehow brought to mind the beginning of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. Némirovsky’s intent is very different to that of Dickens, though.

There are some similarities to the work of F Scott Fitzgerald as the book is set in a milieu which presents a far from attractive face. Némirovsky demonstrates well the unthinking lack of proportion which comes with affluence apparently easily gained. Both Gloria and Joyce seem to think Golder has not had to make any effort to garner the largesse they squander so profligately on their gold-digging boyfriends and vacuous pursuits.

For against appearances Golder’s financial times are hard. When he suffers a heart attack his wife conspires with the doctor who attends to conceal it from him so as he will not stop work and the money will continue to flow. His crash comes anyway and wife and daughter both leave him.

In one sense it is not surprising that Némirovsky makes Golder Jewish. It was her inheritance after all and Golder’s family bears some resemblance to hers – though we can assume not the vacuous daughter. In another author’s hands it might have tended only to reinforce the stereotype that many French held of Jews. At the time of writing the Dreyfus Affair, though partially obscured by the legacy of the Great War, still hung over Némirovsky’s adopted country. But Golder has a weak spot, Joyce, whom he continues to indulge even at the risk of his life. We find his driving force towards the end of the book, the crushing poverty and anti-Semitism he had endured in his childhood on the shores of the Black Sea.

David Golder isn’t Némirovsky at her peak but it is still worth reading Once again it is best to leave the introduction (by Patrick Markham) to the end as it discusses features of the plot and of Golder’s character.

Pedant’s corner:- predelictions (the word is spelled predilections,) “now there’s one enemy less” (“one enemy fewer” sounds more natural to me,) “his entire body felt wracked” (racked, it felt crushed, not wrecked,) “‘Once he’d paid for something, he watches over it,’” (either, “once he’s paid for something”, or else, “he’d watch over it”,) “a newspaper that was laying on the table,” (how can a newspaper lay anything? It was lying on the table,) “in the Ukraine” (in dialogue, but the speaker came from there so most likely would have said “in Ukraine.”)

A Man Lies Dreaming by Lavie Tidhar

Hodder, 2014, 268 p, plus 5 p Historical Notes, 9 p Endnotes and 1p Acknowledgements

 A Man Lies Dreaming cover

Before we plunge into the first chapter there is a framing device, “In another time and place, a man lies dreaming.” Then we enter the diary, from November 1939, of a private investigator who calls himself Wolf, a refugee to London from Germany after an event he describes as the Fall, before a passage in the third person relating ongoing events not described in Wolf’s diary. It very soon is apparent Wolf is a Nazi. “I don’t work for Jews,” he tells the woman who wishes to be his client. Moreover he once had an affair with his neice, Geli (who killed herself with his gun,) and then took up with “sweet, good-natured” Eva. This, in other words is Adolf Hitler, fallen on hard times. (That name though, does not appear on the page till very late in the book.) The woman is Isabella Rubenstein who wants to know the whereabouts of her sister Judith, supposedly smuggled out of a Germany led by the Communist Ernst Thälmann after the 1933 elections, but since disappeared. Altered history territory, then.

Except, it isn’t. The chapter ends with the framing device and the dreaming man is named as Shomer. The book continues with the noir thriller elements alternating Wolf’s diary entries with third person elements and every so often the framing device being reasserted. In this we learn Shomer was a writer of shund (a kind of pulp fiction) and the place he is dreaming in is Auschwitz, the real Auschwitz. So it appears it is Shomer who is telling Wolf’s tale, an exquisite revenge presumably since he inflicts pain on Wolf through the various beatings he receives throughout the thriller. Shomer also hallucinates a companion, Yenkl, partly, it seems, to give him some comfort.

It can also be considered a kind of revenge by Tidhar, who is an Israeli, and whose maternal grandparents were both Auschwitz survivors. (The rest of their families were not so fortunate.) This is the sort of subject matter which a non-Jew would have to treat with circumspection, if not avoid altogether. Tidhar has more licence in that regard.

Hitler has been treated before in SF of course, but not usually so directly – except perhaps for Fritz Leiber’s short story Catch That Zeppelin! and Norman Spinrad’s The Iron Dream part of which purports to be a novel written by a Hitler who emigrated to the US in 1919. The crazed nature of that narrative is not quite emulated here. If anything Wolf is relatively restrained in his ravings. That may be due to the necessity for a viewpoint character to be, at least, coherent.

An altered history would not be worthy of the name did we not meet the famous within and here – as well as Hitler – we duly encounter Oswald Mosley – soon to be a British Union of Fascists Prime Minister in Wolf’s world – his wife, Diana (Mitford,) and her sister Unity, whom Wolf knows as Valkyrie and has the hots for him. Various other Nazis pepper the plot, Rudolf Hess, Josef Kramer, Ilse Koch, Joseph and Magda Goebbels. Literary Brits pop up including Ian Fleming, Tolkien and Evelyn Waugh. Tidhar’s tendency to gild the lily was exemplified here at a publisher’s party (the publisher concerned had, of course, turned down My Struggle,) when Wolf re-encounters Leni Riefenstahl, now working in the US, and she relates to him a plot – to be written by F Scott Fitzgerald as a sequel to The Great Gatsby – for a projected film starring Humphrey Bogart as Gatsby, owner of a bar in North Africa when Daisy Buchanan walks back into his life. The film is to be called Tangier, though, not Casablanca.

There is, too, a Constable Keech. I wondered mildly if Tidhar was aware of what this word signifies for Scots. For myself, I could not avoid the inference.

A Wilfred Owen reference occurs in Wolf’s Great War reminiscences of being blinded and I must confess I liked the conflation, “It is a truth universally acknowledged , that once a detective acquires two concurrent cases , the two must be in some way related,” but I’m not sure about the odd scene where Wolf dreams he is in what is obviously, to us, Auschwitz. Then again, he tells the Chief Inspector who had interrogated him about the murders of prostitutes outside his office, “‘You Jews spend far too much time in your own imagination.’”

This could have been powerful stuff but there is something unbalanced about it all. The scenes in Auschwitz are compelling (but did they still require Sonderkommando to dig graves after the ovens came into operation?) and moving. However, they occupy far too few pages. It is Wolf’s tale which dominates. And that is too trifling to carry the weight thrust upon it by the overall concept.

Pedant’s corner:- USianisms abound. For a story mainly set in late 1930s London that is an added barrier to suspension of disbelief. We had purse for handbag, down-at-the-heels for down at heel, nightstand for bedside table, inside of for inside, ruckus for racket, nightstick – in the 1930s British policemen had truncheons, whiskey (whisky,) airplanes (aeroplanes,) bums used by an Englishwoman as a term for a ne’erdowell (not a chance,) beat-up (beaten-up,) the car’s hood (the car’s bonnet.)

Otherwise there was maw (it’s a stomach not a mouth,) “‘What are you looking at,’ he said’” (ought to have a question mark after at,) Mosleys’s (x2, the correct Mosleys’ was used once,) “the past was …. threatening to catch up to him” (to catch up with him,) tenements (does London have tenements?) sunk (sank,) “none … were” (none was,) “one table was covered in vegetarian dishes from an Indian-style curry to Italian lasagne and British shepherd’s pie” (lasagne and shepherd’s pie would never be vegetarian in the 1930s,) “and sat two tables away from Goodman. He tried to listen to their conversation” (his conversation surely?) ears perked (ears pricked is more usual.) “Her bosoms were immense” (no-one has more than one bosom.) “They put me in a cell again.” (They’d,) “‘Are you,’ I said,” (question mark, not comma, after “you”, “and he gives him with a cursory glance and his diagnosis,” (and he gives him with a cursory glance his diagnosis,) “before immigration out of Germany became impossible” (you cannot immigrate out of a country,) Goebbels misspelled once as Goebbles, “the back of my hands” (technically that would be backs, then,) detached of space and time (detached from,) a red phone box (what other colour would it be? He wasn’t in Hull,) fireworks (on 22nd November? (They were apparently to celebrate the General Election. Not in Britain.) Mosley declares victory on the stroke of midnight of election day. The votes would not all have been counted by then; probably not till the next day back then. He uses the phrase nineteen hundred hours, a military one, not one a politician would employ when addressing a crowd. His first act as the new Prime Minister is to declare war – because Germany has invaded Poland – then martial law (I doubt that last could have been done so readily.) Imposter (impostor.) Wolf describes Charlie Chaplin as “that vile man,” (his lampooning of Hitler did not come till 1940 in our world and would perhaps not have been necessary in Wolf’s.) “The sound the drawer had made … sounded very loud to him” (“the sound sounded” is inelegant, use a different noun; rattle? scrape? noise?) the limelight (of a spotlight, which could be moved? Limelights were fixed in position,) “he always had much respect for the German soldiers,” (lots of respect,) a row work (a row works,) exodii (used in the context of people making an exodus. Is this an invention by Tidhar?)

The Bonniest Companie by Kathleen Jamie

Picador, 2015, 70 p including 1p Notes and Acknowledgements.

The Bonniest Companie cover

This, Jamie’s latest book of poetry, won the Saltire Society Book of the Year Award for 2016.

There are 47 poems here of which only two stretch over 1 page in length. Most take the form, if not the formal structure, of a sonnet, though Soledades has eight lines of what look like prose before opening out in its last three lines. Some are very short indeed. The last, Gale, has only 16 syllables, shorter than a haiku. The longest, Another You, bears out the potency of cheap music, the titular deer in The Hinds are “the bonniest companie”. Ben Lomond refers to the bonny banks in a poem which, like the song containing those lines, is about death and remembrance. 23/9/14 is an injunction to gird up again after the Scottish Independence Referendum. High Water compares ocean tides to an adulterous affair, Scotland’s Splendour scopes out the delights of memories from a book stumbled on in a charity shop, Wings Over Scotland is a litany of the recorded deaths of birds of prey on various landed estates, taken – verbatim it would seem – from the original reports.

The language Jamie uses goes from standard English to various degrees of Scots depending on the poem. Migratory II, (eftir Hölderlin) is the most uncompromisingly Scottish. The prevalence of poems about animals or landscape places Jamie’s poetry firmly within the tradition of Scottish literature.

Pedant’s corner:- midgies (I know Scottish spelling is a moveable feast but midges, please,) “one less left” (“one fewer” sounds more natural to me.)

The Autumn of the Patriarch by Gabriel García Márquez

Penguin, 2014, 233 p. Translated from the Spanish El Otoño del Patriarca, 1975, by Gregory Rabassa.

 The Autumn of the Patriarch cover

It would be difficult to review this book without considering its form and structure, which are not for the faint-hearted, demanding concentration from the reader. There are six sections in all and each one consists of but a single long paragraph containing meandering sentences ranging up to several pages or more in length. Indeed the last section had just one sentence stretching over 45 pages. Within these digressive sentences the narrative viewpoint frequently switches back and forth, neither is there dialogue in the conventional sense, only reports of speech – perhaps interspersed with a “general sir”, or other vocative interpolation, to indicate that the preceding phrase is supposed to have been spoken. But for those viewpoint changes (some of which are in the plural) the prose could almost be described as stream of consciousness – or even stream of unconsciousness as one interpretation is that it represents the patriarch’s last thoughts; his life flashing past him as it ebbs away, “he was condemned not to know life except in reverse,” imagining again the events that brought him to his lonely end.

The autumn of the title is the long period of decay during which the (unnamed and, reportedly, absurdly long-lived,) patriarch retreated into solitude and his power rested on his reputation. The litany of atrocities and sexual peccadillos is what you might expect from a man of this sort, though he is portrayed as having an affection for both his mother, Bendicíon Alvarado, and the woman, Leticia Nazareno, he plucked from being a novitiate to share his bed.

The hall of mirrors that is living under a dictatorship is illustrated by lines such as, “We knew no evidence of his death was final, because there was always another truth behind the truth,” and “a lie is more comfortable than doubt, more useful than love, more lasting than truth,” and “the belief that the less people understand the more afraid they’ll be.” These are lessons always needing to be learned it would seem. There is also an odd passage where we are told the patriarch had had “brought from Scotland eighty-two new born bulldogs …evilly taught to kill by a Scottish trainer.” I wondered why Márquez had chosen Scotland; it’s not particularly known for bulldogs.

The Autumn of the Patriarch is an exercise in form and experiment bearing few of the easy consolations of a conventional novel. It’s a tour-de-force certainly, but it’s not one for the casual reader.

A word for the translator, Gregory Rabassa. This must have been a particularly tricky book to translate and he has done a magnificent job. Rabassa was credited by Márquez of making the English translation of One Hundred Years of Solitude superior to the original Spanish. Sadly, he died in June 2016. So it goes.

And a warning for those who wish to avoid the n-word, in which case don’t read the next sentence. The phrase “nigger whorehouse” appears in the text.

Pedant’s corner:- nowthat (now that,) bureaus (I prefer bureaux,) convenience’ sake (convenience’s sake,) insignias (insignia. Is insignias USian?)

Tamburlaine Must Die by Louise Welsh

Canongate, 2005, 158 p.

 Tamburlaine Must Die cover

This novella is certainly a departure from the genre and style of Welsh’s first book, her novel The Cutting Room, a contemporary (more or less) crime tale set in Glasgow. The time here is London in 1593 and we are reading Christopher Marlowe’s account of his past few days, written in case he does not survive the morrow. Drawn before the Privy Council to answer charges of blasphemy and atheism (someone has been disseminating leaflets of this nature as written by “Tamburlaine” and naturally this is assumed to be Marlowe himself after his success with his play Tamburlaine the Great,) he is set free in order to procure evidence against Sir Walter Raleigh. His efforts in this direction are taken over by his quest to discover the person who had betrayed him; a search in which we are led through the byways, hideaways, stews and fleshpots of Elizabethan London, the politics of power and the drawbacks of having an influential patron.

I must confess I have not read nor seen any of Marlowe’s works – so how well Welsh captures his voice I cannot say, but it was convincing enough. Of course true Elizabethan prose would have been fairly impenetrable to the modern reader in any case so some degree of accommodation is to be expected.

On a second thought this is not actually so much of a leap by Welsh. She is still dealing with intrigue and crime. She has done it well though and is now on my look for list.

Pedant’s corner:- I couldn’t find ambidextor anywhere, on line or off, but its context was as if of people who might play one side against the other; nor could I find cosiner (but it may be a variant of cozener as it was in a list of felons of various sorts.) Otherwise:- wainscoted (wainscotted,) Baynes’ (Baynes’s,) hung (hanged, or was hung Elizabethan usage?) from whence (whence means from where, so from whence can only mean from from where.)

Asimov’s Science Fiction Dec 2016

Dell Magazines

Asimov's Dec 2016 cover

Sarah Pinsker’s Guest Editorial That’s Far Out, So You Read it Too? muses on the connections, and the similarities, between SF and music. Robert Silverberg’s Reflections examines the possibility and desirability of resurrecting the Dodo genetically. Peter Heck’s On Books1 discusses novels by Lois McMaster Bujold, Charles Stross, Pierce Brown, Tim Powers, Indra Das and Lavie Tidhar.
In the fiction:-
They All Have One Breath2 by Alexander Jablokov explicitly references E M Forster’s The Machine Stops in a tale of a world taken over by AIs, where all acts of violence have been made impossible.
Empty Shoes by the Lake by Octavia Cade is the tale of two people from a backwoods town; Rafi who gets out, makes pottery and sends his first bowl (cracked) to the other, Becca, who sees visions in the puddles left by the water that seeps out of it.
In HigherWorks3 by Gregory Norman Bossert a black refugee from a US turned to fascism to an almost equally fascistic UK has the knowledge to allow nanotechnology to connect minds together.
The extremely short How the Damned Live On by James Sallis is set on an unspecified island which contains a giant speaking spider which experiences time differently from our human narrator.
The island in The Cold Side of the Island4 by Kali Wallace is somewhere off the north east coast of the US. One day three youngsters find a set of unidentifiable bones in the woods, bones which bind then even though they’ve drifted apart.
Where There is Nothing: There Is God5 by David Erik Nelson features a jobbing actor travelling back in time to 1770 Massachusetts to ply the locals with crystal meth in return for silverware stamped with the mark of Paul Revere.

Pedant’s corner: 1 have showed (shown,) “a team who’s assessing” (a team which is assessing,) “there are a number” (there is a number,) Stross’s (√) yet also Powers’ (be consistent at least.) 2Polykleitos’ (Polykleitos’s.) 3”The couple are” (the couple is,) “a gaggle of girls… stumble” (a gaggle stumbles,) Blue tats’ (Blue tats is a nickname, so is singular; hence Blue tats’s,) “‘a economic refugee’” (even in dialogue that ought to be an economic refugee,) “an photographic print” (a,) “A flock of microdrones spiral” (a flock spirals,) “like a hole in the dancers hair” (dancer’s,) “as she looses the thread” (loses.) 4”Each phalanges” (each phalange, or phalanx,) “a knobby knitted hit” (Hurrah for knitted but the hit should have been a hat.) 5Charles’ (Charles’s,) largess (largesse. Is largess a USian spelling?) James’ (James’s,) maw (it’s a stomach, not a mouth,) “asking ‘Well…’” (no comma preceding the direct speech) “none were drawn” (none was drawn,) Means’ (Means’s.)

The Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett

Cassell, 1962, 541 p. One of the 100 best Scottish Books.

The Game of Kings cover

This novel is set in the times of what the father of the historical novel Sir Walter Scott dubbed the “Rough Wooing” (a phrase Dunnett never uses in the book) which started when Henry VIII of England wished for a marriage between the infant Queen of Scots, Mary, and his son Edward (VI of England) in order to unite the two kingdoms and so prevent any military threat through England’s back door. The Scots, longtime allies of England’s perennial enemy France, were somewhat unwilling to oblige Henry in this regard, and so a series of wars and invasions began, which in the novel are being promulgated in Edward’s name by Lord Seymour, Duke of Somerset, England’s Lord Protector during Edward’s minority.

Our hero is Francis Crawford of Lymond, Master of Culter, a younger son at odds with his older brother, though his mother’s favourite. We find him newly returned to Scotland from enforced exile (not to mention a term as a galley slave,) the leader of a band of border outlaws, the states of both Scotland and England having a price on his head (in particular he is thought to have betrayed Scotland, as a result contributing to the disaster that was the Battle of Solway Moss five years in this story’s past,) as a young red-headed aristocratic lad called Will Scott of Kincurd, heir to Sir Walter Scott of Buccleuch, turns up wishing to join his band.

Lymond is outrageously accomplished, a master swordsman and archer, who litters his speech with Latin epithets and quotations from both French and German, speaks Spanish, has a firm grasp of psychology and can outthink and outdrink anybody – the last being handy when you’re the leader of a band of outlaws. To put it another way, in the words of Chris Tarrant on Tiswas parodying Eamonn Andrews in This is Your Life, he is, “a right clever dick if ever there was one”. He is not unaware of this and neither is Dunnett as at one point she has him say, “‘Nothing arouses suspicion quicker than genuine, all round proficiency.’”

I confess it got a bit wearing in the earlier parts of the book when every mysterious “new” character turned out to be Lymond in some disguise or other (or, in one instance, as an amnesiac.) Whatever, incident is packed on incident, scrape on scrape, as the plot unfolds Lymond’s efforts to uncover the Englishman who might clear his name.

However, Dunnett has, while foregrounding the lives of Lymond and his family, also, almost quietly, ticking away in the background, provided a primer in the politics and strife of the time. This, indeed, is the sort of story nations need periodically to tell themselves so that they keep their histories alive.

And some things never change. An Englishman tells Lymond, “I don’t want to become part of the Holy Roman Empire, and it wouldn’t do Scotland any good either. You’re a threat to three million people out of all proportion to your size. You can’t expect us to leave you alone, to siphon up the dregs of Europe and inject them into our backside.” Substitute EU for Holy Roman Empire and fifty-five for three million and you’ve just about got the present day situation. As a rejoinder Lymond says, “‘You haven’t seen what your late king managed in the way of practical persuasion, with Somerset following ….. abbeys brought to the ground, villages annihilated by the hundred, a nobility decimated, a country brought to poverty which thirty years ago was graced above any other in Europe with the arts of living.” To the suggestions that French domination is inevitable if Mary marries the Dauphin and that the Auld Alliance had done Scotland little good, “‘Look at Flodden,’” Lymond replies, “‘France has too many commitments to spare enough troops to rule Scotland. Good lord, if England can’t do it, then France isn’t likely to.’”

On the subject of patriotism Lymond is scathing. It’s “‘a fine hothouse for maggots. It breeds intolerance; it forces a spindle-legged, spurious riot of colour ….. A man of only moderate powers enjoys the special sanction of purpose, the sense of ceremony, the echo of mysterious, lost and royal things; a trace of the broad, plain childish virtues of myth and legend and ballad…. He wants advancement – what simpler way is there? Patriotism. It’s an opulent word, a mighty key to a royal Cloud-Cuckoo-Land …… a vehicle for shedding boredom and exercising surplus power or surplus talents or surplus money; an immature ignorance which becomes the coin of barter in the markets of power.’” I am with the Lord Advocate, Henry Lauder, who says to Lymond, “‘Preserve us from the honest clod and the ambitious fanatic.’” There are too many of those, in any time.

Dunnett definitely aspires to fine writing. Lymond’s allusions are the least of it. “‘I wish to God,’ said Gideon with mild exasperation, ‘that you’d talk – just once – in prose like other people.’” Many chapter headings refer to obscure moves in chess and the text is littered not only with quotations and epithets but a good dose of uncommonly used or obsolete words (how about aposteme, or concamerate, or escharotic?) but actually not very many Scots ones. When she stops to take breath Dunnett is particularly adept in description of scenery or atmosphere but for me there was not quite enough of that and a bit too much of the swashbuckling derring-do about the project. But her characters are well drawn, the intrigue and politics intricately laid out. It’s a good read if a little over-wordy (but in that it’s not in the class of Sir Walter Scott, novelist.)

Throughout, though, I couldn’t shake off the feeling (and the dénouement only emphasised the thought) that however much Lymond appears to be Dunnett’s vehicle the tale is really that of Will Scott of Kincurd.

Pedant’s corner:- “dead right” (dead is here used in dialogue as an emphasiser to mean completely or absolutely. In the 1400s?) knit (knitted,) vocal chords (it’s cords; vocal cords.) “The progress of Sybilla though a market” (through a market,) “as Flaw Valleys’ near the border” (Flaw Valleys is a farm so, “as Flaw Valleys is near the border”,) “genetically speaking” (in dialogue in the fifteenth century? Imre Festetics was the first to use the term genetic, 300 years later,) Portugese (Portuguese,) peripetia (peripeteia?) Bowes’ (Bowes’s; apart from the one below other names ending in s are rendered …s’s elsewhere,) accolyte (the correct “acolyte” appeared later,) vivesection (vivisection,) Berick (Berwick,) Stokes’ (Stokes’s,) olefactory (olfactory,) insifflating (insufflating?) subsaltive (subsultive?) catachumen (catechumen.)

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