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Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

Guild Publishing, 1982, 233 p. First published 1817.

 Northanger Abbey cover

This is Austen’s first novel in order of writing, but the sixth to be published. It is certainly a lighter read than Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice but it is refreshing too in that its content is not over-familiar, not having been adapted to death for film and television in the way others of her works have.

From the outset it adopts a more satirical tone than those two books, seems to have a more acid eye to cast on polite society. It was Austen’s commentary on the sort of gothic novel which was seen as trifling, probably thought to be fit only for women to read.

It could even be said to be meta-fictional in that it addresses the reader directly, comments on itself (and on the attitudes of characters in novels to the reading of novels as somehow being unworthy,) while the narrator castigates her fellow novelists for their disparagement of their craft and enumerates the iniquities of reviewers but the overall story arc follows the pattern of romantic fiction.

Heroine Catherine Morland’s mother “had three sons before Catherine was born; and instead of dying in bringing the latter into the world, as anybody might expect, she still lived on.” Catherine herself is said to be as plain as any – no one “would have supposed her born to be a heroine” – seemingly with no outstanding qualities at all. Catherine’s fairly restricted life is opened up when she is asked to accompany the Allens on a trip to Bath for a few weeks’ stay. Here we have the vacuousness of trips to the Pump Room, the tedium of balls where the attendee knows no-one, either to converse or to dance with but soon enough Catherine falls into the orbit of Isabella Thorpe, the object of Catherine’s brother James’s affections, and Isabella’s brother, John, one of those men who insist on their own plans being followed, and who quickly takes it into his head that he and Catherine have formed an attachment. However, Catherine’s attentions soon lock onto Henry Tilney, via his sister Eleanor, and she is at pains to disabuse Isabella of any attraction to John.

It is past, though, the middle of the book before we come to Northanger Abbey, the Tilney’s residence, to where Henry and Eleanor’s father, the Colonel, invites Catherine. Her fascination with old architecture, coloured as it is by her slightly lurid imaginings (derived from gothic novels, naturally) ensures she is almost as delighted at the prospect of seeing Northanger Abbey as she is at prolonged contact with the Tilney siblings.

As fits Austen’s satirical intent, elements from the gothic (there are frequent references to the novel referred to as Udolpho) intrude at various points but while she has Catherine wondering about the appearance and contents of the room she is given at Northanger Abbey, what secrets it might conceal, and having all sorts of unworthy thoughts about Colonel Tilney related to the death of his wife or the possibility that she remains alive and sequestered, Austen draws back from excess. Given the milieu it is of course necessary that the path of true love does not run smooth – not for James as Isabella’s inconstancy is revealed, nor for Catherine when the Colonel is informed that she is not as ideal a match for his son as he had been led to believe.

There are Austenisms such as, “A woman, especially, if she have the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can,” to please the aficionados and an aside on men’s indifference to a new gown (or indeed any new clothing) on a woman. What the book demonstrates beyond anything else though, is the importance of money and prospects to the society Austen portrays.

Modern sensibilities might be offended by John Thorpe’s observation that the Colonel is, “as rich as a Jew.”

Pedant’s corner:- “the Miss Thorpes” (x 2, the Misses Thorpe,) “Miss Thorpe’s, progress” (no comma needed,) by the bye (I prefer ‘by the by’,) “her acquaintance with the Tilney’s” (with the Tilneys,) a missing comma at the end of a piece of direct speech, another before the start of one, “in the general” (in the General, several instances of General with a lower case ‘g’,) “the Lady Frasers” (strictly, the Ladies Fraser,) “the whole family were immediately at the window” (the whole family was immediately at the window,)

The Rector and The Doctor’s Family by Mrs Oliphant

Chronicles of Carlingford. Virago, 1993, 196 p, plus xii p Introduction by Penelope Fitzgerald.

 The Rector and The Doctor’s Family  cover

Being two shorter works The Rector, not even novella length, and the more substantial The Doctor’s Family.

In The Rector, the old Rector (profoundly Low Church, “lost in the deepest abysses of Evangelicalism”) has died. Mr Proctor – Fellow of All-Souls Oxford – has come to replace him but finds the practice of ministry very different from the academic life he has left. When his aged mother joins him she divines instantly that at least one of the churchwarden’s two daughters will be “intended” for him. He is terrified and reflects, “But have not women been incomprehensible since ever there was in this world a pen with sufficient command of words to call them so? …. And is it not certain that …. every soul of them is plotting to marry somebody? …. Who could fathom the motives of a woman?” Meanwhile his mother, “watched him as women do often watch men, waiting till the creature should come to itself again and might be spoken to.” That fear, combined with Mr Proctor’s total inability to cope with the needs of a dying parishioner and the demands of sociability lead him to reconsider his position.

The Doctor’s Family.
Dr Edward Rider, not the pre-eminent physician in Carlingford – that would be Dr Marjoribanks – has the medical care of the less well-off of Carlingford society. His only burden is that of his waster of a brother Fred, back from the colonies under a cloud, indolent to a fault and an almost permanent resident in an easy-chair. Two ladies arrive at the door one day and Edward is astonished to find that Fred has a wife, Susan – and three more or less uncontrolled children – come over from Australia with Susan’s sister Nettie, who in turn has just about the means to support them. Nettie is the practical one, arranging lodgings for the ensemble in St Roques’s cottage, and undertaking all the work of the household. Edward becomes enamoured of Nettie, but her sense of duty to her sister’s family is so strong that she will not contemplate leaving them for anything.

It is reasonably clear from Edward’s first encounter with Nettie where all this will be going. There are of course minor complications to the narrative, a potential rival for Nettie’s affections in the person of the permanent curate of St Roques’s church, a tentative leaning towards Miss Marjoribanks while Edward works through his irritation at Nettie’s refusal of his own, but even when Fred dies, drowned in a canal after a night in the pub, Nettie will not abandon her duty. Only the entrance of Richard Chatham, another Australian, (un)distinguished by a luxuriant beard – not common in Carlingford in those days, only Mr Lake has such an affectation and his is very much subdued by comparison – changes the dyamic.

Oliphant’s style is wordy, she was a nineteenth century novelist after all, but her eye for the human heart, for its predicaments, is sure.

Pedant’s corner:- In the Introduction, a missing comma before a quote of direct speech, and one missing at the end of such a quote, Freddie (x 2; the text has Freddy,) “between man and women” (men and women.) Otherwise; “the two Miss Woodhouses” (several times; the two Misses Woodhouse,) “‘It did not use to be’” (used to be,) St Roques’ (St Roques’s.)

Adrift on the Nile by Naguib Mahfouz

Anchor Books, 1994, 172 p. Translated from the Arabic, Thartharah Fawq al Nīl, by Frances Liardet.

 Adrift on the Nile cover

This novel features a group of friends who regularly meet in the evening on a houseboat on the River Nile to talk about the issues of the day but mainly to smoke kif through a water-pipe.

The viewpoint starts off as that of Anis Zaki, a civil servant with troubles at work and whose wife and daughter died many years previously. Anis’s mind can wander and he has occasional illusions – of the Caliph Harun-al-Rashid, of a whale in the Nile, of conversing with the pharaoh Thutmose III. Sometimes, however, the narrative focus shifts to something more objective.

Others of the company are Ahmad Nasr, notoriously faithful to his wife; Mustafa Rashid, a well-known lawyer; Ali al-Sayid, a famous art critic; Khalid Azzuz, a writer; Ragab al-Qadi, the group’s womaniser in chief. Women are not excluded; Layla Zaydan, a translator, is introduced to new members as “beautiful and cultured” not least in that her golden hair is real, not a wig, while Saniya Kamil turns up whenever her husband has committed an indiscretion. The houseboat is looked after by general factotum Amm Abduh, huge in stature, who mostly keeps himself to himself but when summoned will refresh the water-pipe. As well as making the call-to-prayer at the local mosque he will procure street girls for the members. The group’s female members, despite occasionally spending the night in rooms on the boat, are contrasted to the street girls in that, “‘they are respectable ladies,’” the rationale being, “‘They don’t sell themselves. They give and take, just like men.’”

The text is mostly dialogue, there is not much of a plot here. There is some disquiet one evening when Ragab appears with the teenage Sana al-Rashidi, a student; even more when journalist Samara Barghat arrives, the object of suspicion due to her calling (possibly not unjustified suspicion, revealed when Anis takes the opportunity to rummage in her handbag one evening and filches a notebook which contains a scenario and characters for a play – all based on the houseboat’s habituees.) The only incident occurs on a car journey out of the city, to which Anis had only reluctantly acceded, when, travelling too fast on their return, they hit a pedestrian. But all agree to keep quiet about it.

By showing us a slice of middle-class Egyptian life in the 1960s (when the book was first published in Arabic,) Adrift on the Nile reveals the uneasy connection between Egypt’s past and its then present by subtle indirection.

Pedant’s corner:- Translated into USian (except handbag and purse are used in the British sense.) Anis’ (Anis’s, many instances,) “is a that any description” (no ‘a’,) protozoan (protozoon,) “‘people who will praise you work’” (your work.)

In the Red Lord’s Reach by Phyllis Eisenstein

Grafton, 1993, 286 p.

 In the Red Lord’s Reach  cover

These are the continuing adventures of Alaric the minstrel, hero of Born to Exile, who has the ability to transport himself instantaneously from one place to another, a trait he has to keep secret for fear of being called a witch. In his wanderings he comes to the domain of the Red Lord where he offers his musical services in return for the usual bed and board. Very soon he realises that there is something disturbing at the heart of the Red Lord’s reign. The hold the Lord has over the valley is as a reward for protection against bandits – of whom Alaric has seen no sign – and screams come from the Lord’s tower every night. When Alaric says it is time for him to leave he is taken to the tower where he finds the Lord tortures and eventually kills his victims, a fate now intended for Alaric.

He escapes (of course, how could a self-teleporter not?) and makes his way to the north lands where he falls in with the deer-herding (and riding) nomads who live there. The chief, Simir, himself a fugitive from the Red Lord, takes to him, as does Xavia the daughter of the nomads’ witch, Kata. Kata’s potions and prognostications are a solace for the nomads – she yearly provides them all with the Elixir of Life and imbues the men with the talent to hunt. Here being a witch is not seen as devilry, though Alaric does not accept that for a while. His relationship with Xavia is not taken well by Simir’s sons and leads to a confrontation. The sons are exiled and Alaric finds himself desired as a successor by both Simir and Kata.

The bad winter which follows leaves the nomads with few deer, no prospects for the next year and little option but what all along the reader knew was coming; to try to overthrow the Red Lord.

It’s decently enough written and engaging (not to mention remarkably free of errata) but an attempted rationale for Alaric’s powers as tapping into what seem to be magnetic field lines, described when Kata leads an expedition north to harvest the strange flowers which grow only there at midsummer and provide the ingredients for the Elixir of Life, sits somewhat oddly with the otherwise purely fantastical premise.

Pedant’s corner:- a missing comma before a piece of direct speech. “‘Pilgrim’s bound where?’” (Pilgrims.)

Crowdie and Cream by Finlay J MacDonald

Warner Books. First published 1982. In The Finlay J Macdonald Omnibus, 1988, 174 p.

The Finlay J Macdonald Omnibus cover

This is MacDonald’s memoir of growing up in Harris, (which is known as the Isle of Harris even though it’s only the southern half of an island: ditto the Isle of Lewis, the northern half.)

Between the Twentieth Century’s two great wars the south of Harris was being repopulated with the aid of a Government intiative but this was still a harsh time when there were few amenities in the temporary turf-roofed dwellings the families occupied while they built their own stone ones – and not many in those – though the remains of the houses whose occupants had been cleared several generations earlier were a stark reminder of worse. There were no inside toilets – the great outdoors sufficed. Water for drinking and cooking was drawn from a nearby burn. In the times Macdonald is remembering the more convenient Tilly lamp superseded paraffin lighting and its whiter light was a source of regret. Electricity and gas were not even a dream.

The book embeds a history of Harris as the author explains his family’s circumstances and delves into the customs of the islanders while the delights of Toffee Cow (McCowans Highland Toffee, now sadly no more) become one of the author’s pleasures as he grows.

A lot of the narrative describes MacDonald’s schoolroom reminiscences, especially the initial tribulations of being solely a Gaelic speaker till he attended school (whose medium was of course exclusively English -inevitably the tawse features at times) and despite this not being published till the author was in his fifties he still manages to retain (or simulate) a child’s perspective. “Gillespie and I had long since learned to distrust adults when they were trying to sound reasonable.” He also comments on the curious circumstance by which the education all the parents desired for their children would most likely ensure that those children would leave the island in pursuit of the opportunities which that education had brought.

The coming of the Great Depression brings further hardship as the Harris Tweed trade declines. (Its use of human waste to fix the dyes require for colouring the tweed obliging everyone – visitors included – to avail themselves of the pee-pot when nature called is matter-of-factly described.)

There are several moments of humour, the new schoolteacher’s Word Game foundering on the definition of an organ, the kilted Dr MacBeth misunderstanding the question asked of him by a new father – this last had me giggling for about half a minute; not the usual response to reading tales of bygone Scottish life.

Like many a Scottish novel this autobiography is another of those laments for a past time, of the loss of a way of life, a documentation of things past. MacDonald certainly has an eye for it, and a way with words – even if they are in his second language.

Pedant’s corner:- Port Sunlight in Lancashire (it’s in the Wirral peninsula, not traditionally considered Lancashire,) “ ‘grace and favour ” (this opened quote was never closed,) while pages later we had “ away down in the south’ ” (a closing quote mark for an unopened quote,) bye-blow (by-blow,) “having failed to illicit information” (elicit,) another end quote that had not been opened, another opened quote remaining unclosed, “until we were hustled off the bed” (off to bed,) liguistic (linguistic,) “to smoothe them” (smooth them,) “even the Prince of Wales wears it” – the kilt – “whenever he ventures north of the Caledonian Canal” (I don’t think Balmoral – or Braemar – are north of there,) goloshes (my dictionary gives this as an alternative spelling but it was always galoshes in my day.)

The Century’s Daughter by Pat Barker

Virago, 1986, 286 p. (This novel is also known as Liza’s England.)

The Century's Daughter cover

Stephen is a social worker, troubled by the youths down at what passes for the local centre, and also by his parents who are uncomfortable with (or in his mother’s case unaware of) his homosexuality. He is assigned to Liza Jarrett, an old woman living with a parrott called Nelson (whom she inherited from a pub landlord when the pub closed down) in a terraced house scheduled for demolition but which she is unwilling to give up. Liza was born on the stroke of midnight at 1899’s turn into 1900 and dubbed ‘Daughter of the Century’ by the local newspaper, a clipping of which her father was very proud. This made her one of that generation who lost brothers in one war and sons in the next. The novel is, though, more a tale of female resilience in and around that century’s defining landmarks (which it deals with only tangentially, even if their repercussions impact mightily on Liza’s life.) It intersperses Liza’s memories with Stephen’s experiences in the present as he comes to appreciate her and her determination to make the best of things, to fend for herself, to depend on nobody, and, with its present being the 1980s, illuminates the passing of a sense of community, of worth, “‘that’s where it all went wrong you know. It was all money. You’d’ve thought we had nowt else to offer. But we did. We had a way of life, a way of treating people.’”

There is some ground here to which Barker would return in her Regeneration trilogy (in particular the Great War and its munitions workers known as canaries.) While it tends to the bleak there are some moments of wry humour. At Stephen’s dad’s funeral, “‘It’s like a wedding in there,’ Stephen said. ‘No it isn’t,’ said Christine. Weddings aren’t that cheerful.’”

This was Barker’s third novel and while the characterisation is good her writing had not quite yet attained the maturity it would display later. The story is engaging though and Liza’s life reflects the stoicism of the women of her generation and class not often exhibited in fiction with the novel overall a threnody for a lost solidarity.

Pedant’s corner:- a missing comma before a piece of direct speech (x 2,) wrack and ruin (OK, it’s a legitimate alternative but to me wrack is a seaweed, so, rack and ruin), minaly (mainly,) “from his dying from his dying body” (only one ‘from his dying’ needed.) “Most of the crowd were young” (Most of the crowd was young.)

Bugs by John Sladek

Macmillan, 1989, 215 p.

Bugs cover

Sladek was one of those writers who contributed to the New Wave of Science Fiction in the 1960s. His SF always had a kind of sideways slant, not as bonkers as R A Lafferty but not conventional in any way.

This novel has a Science-Fictional premise in that it postulates the creation of a thinking robot but is designed more as a satire on the contemporary corporate culture of the 1980s and of USian manners, usages (Tea tier tgo for “To eat here, or to go) and sexual mores. It also rather spectacularly blows out of the water Gene Wolfe’s first rule of writing: ‘never name a character Fred.’

Said Fred is Manfred Jones, an English writer who has come to New York at the behest of his agent only to find that the project he had been lured with does not exist. His wife, Susan, is disgusted by their cockroach infested rooms and soon flies back home. Fred applies for a job as a technical writer at VIMNUT Industries in Minneapolis. He is mistaken for someone else and taken on – as a software engineer – and the misapprehensions go on from there.

He is rescued from a cloud of gnats by a Soviet spy calling herself K K who, of course, “speaks” with v replacing w, omits words like ‘a,’ ‘the’ and the odd ‘it,’ and says ‘darlink’ rather than darling and tries to recruit him. Various organisations offer him money over the phone, he is investigated by the IRS even though his pay-check from VIMNUT, which becomes Cyberk Corporation before he even joins, then later VEXXO, only one of a string of companies in the book constantly being renamed, while Fred’s British accent also leads to him continually being asked, “Why don’t you Brits bugger off out of Ireland.”

The whole is interspersed with background news items – most with ludicrously named reporters such as Aramis Whiteflow and Porthos Floog – on the killer targetting the Little Dorrit Restaurant chain. There is, too, an ongoing set of presidential sanity hearings. (If only, I hear you say.) There are embedded quotes from Bookends era Paul Simon songs and explicit references to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, whose fate the robot fears, especially after it is kidnapped and blamed for a death that took place during the incident.

Bugs is entertaining and clever, a perfect light read for lockdown or any other time, but sensitive souls should note there is a character described as a Negro who at one point says to a receptionist, “all you gotta do is put it in your ad: No niggers need apply.”

Pedant’s corner:- Talos’ (Talos’s,) “all he could do was to put down the chair” (all he could do was put down the chair,) caviar (caviar.) “Seeing her though tears” (through tears,)

Cloud Cuckoo Land by Naomi Mitchison

The Traveller’s Library, 1928, 348 p.

Cloud Cuckoo Land cover

This contains a dedication which I would have thought to be quite daring for the 1920s, “To my lover.”

The book is set during the Pelopponesian War, starting off on the island of Poieëssa in the Aegean Sea. Here young Alxenor is caught between the wishes of his brother, Euripaides, to support Sparta against the island’s overlord Athens, and those of Chromon, the brother of the girl he likes, Moiro, in favour of the democrats. When the revolt aganist Athens comes, Alxenor is only able to save Moiro with the help of a Spartan, Leon and find she ha smade an enemy of Chromon. He and Moiro flee to Athens where he is taken in by Theramenes, a trader, and marries Moiro. He is only able to make money by enlisting as a rower on one of Theramenes’s triremes but it is never enough and he and Moiro live more or less hand-to-mouth, even when they have a son, Timas. Moiro is pregnant again when Alxenor has to make another sailing trip and he advises her to keep the new child if it’s a boy or else expose it (in the Greek way) if it is a girl. It’s a girl and his wishes are followed by the household. Thereafter things between Moiro and Alxenor are broken and he takes care not to make her pregnant again.

On one of Alxenor’s trips he receives news that Sparta’s navy has defeated that of Athens at Aegospotami and the fall of the city becomes a foregone conclusion. Thus it is that Alxenor and his family end up in Sparta at the household of Leon’s cousin where Moiro has an affair with Leon and the inevitable happens. Her loyal slave attempts to get rid of the child but it goes wrong and Moiro dies. Here the Spartans offer to bring up Timas as one of their own. Alxenor is willing at first but another non-Spartan who is undergoing the same training as intended for Timas secretly warns him not to allow it. He and Timas make their escape and head for Poieëssa.

This is another illustration of Mitchison’s clear love for ancient times as in The Corn King and the Spring Queen and Travel Light (and also Blood of the Martyrs.) Her knowledge of the times and customs shines through but I would perhaps have enjoyed this more if I’d had a wider knowledge of the Pelopponesian war than merely that it was a contest between Athens and Sparta.

As a novel, though, this has a peculiar ending in that it doesn’t seem to have a conclusion. It just stops. And I still can’t quite see in what context the title Cloud Cuckoo Land is apposite.

Pedant’s corner:- Theramenes’ (Theramenes’s. All names ending in ‘s’ in this book are treated similarly, though,) shrunk (x 2, shrank,) “he dare not” (past tense, dared not,) “none of the Spartans were back” (none … was back,) slipt (archaic spelling of slipped – or is it Scots?) “two fellow-servants of Isadas’ went” (doesn’t need that apostrophe after Isadas,) “wouldn’t leave go” (wouldn’t let go.) “None of them were …” (None of them was… .) mistress’ (mistress’s,) sunk (sank.) T S Elliot (in a chapter epigraph. T S Eliot.) “‘Aren’t I ever going back’” (Please. ‘Amn’t I ever going back?’)

The Fish Can Sing by Halldór Laxness

Harvill Panther, 2001, 252 p, including i p note on pronunciation and ii p map of Iceland. Translated from the Icelandic, Brekkukanstannáll, (Helgafell, Iceland, 1957,) by Magnus Magnusson.

 The Fish Can Sing  cover

There is something almost mythic, or fabular, about the origins of narrator Álfgrímur Hanson, born in the mid-loft of Brekkukot, a dimly lit turf-roofed shack on the outskirts of what would become Reykjavík, and who never saw his mother again, as she was in transit to the US, sponsored by the Mormons or some such. Instead he was brought up by the pair who lived in Brekkukot, whom he called grandfather and grandmother even though they were no relation at all. Grandfather Björn is a lumpfisherman, wedded to the old ways, plying his trade by hand. He never changes the price of his fish; neither when a surplus lowers others’ nor when a shortage makes his catch more valuable. Brekkukot is also a way-station for those with nowhere else to go, packed with adults sleeping in the same cramped space, always available to house those needing a bed. Such is the atmosphere that surrounds him, though, that Álfgrímur does not realise he could be considered poor until almost into adulthood. Not that he ever thought about it, he simply didn’t question Brekkukot’s place in the world.

His grandfather has a firm sense of what is right and proper with his “conviction that the money which people considered theirs by right was unlawfully accumulated, or counterfeit, if it exceeded the average income of a working man; and therefore that all great wealth was inconsistent with common sense.”

In many ways, perhaps due to similarly inclement climates, Icelanders’ attitudes to the world as shown here have something of the Scots sense of endurance about them. Álfgrímur tells us, “I could swear on oath that growing up I never heard the word ‘happiness’ except on the lips of a crazy woman who lodged in the mid-loft with us for a time.” He instances many Icelandic phrases with this kind of sentiment. ‘They have plenty of salt fish,’ = they’re doing all right, ‘Oh, he’s fat enough,’ = he’s well, ‘Oh, you can see it on him’, = he’s unwell, ‘He’s a bit low,’ = he’s more dead than alive, ‘He’s off his food these days,’ = dying of old age, ‘he’s packing his bags now, poor fellow,’ = on his deathbed. When a married couple separated, ‘Yes, there’s something wrong there I believe,’ was said. Or is this stoicism simply due to Álfgrímur’s particular circumstances? “At Brekkukot every word was precious, even the little words.”

The book is set at a time when change is coming to the country yet still before Iceland had gained independence from Denmark. The prickly relationship between the island and its then ruler is alluded to often in unflattering mentions of the Danish king and brought into sharper focus by the sentence, “The only insult that can really rile an Icelander is to be called a Dane.” And Icelanders had apparently always considered what the Pope said about religious faith laughable.

A lot of the novel is taken up with the saga of Garðar Hólm, of Hríngjarabær, close to Berkkukot. He is apparently the only world-renowned Icelander, a singer, known to crowned heads and the Pope. His returns to the island are eagerly awaited, promoted in the newspaper, the Ísafold, but often found to be only rumour or called off at the last minute. Yet he makes unheralded appearances in Reykjavík and the odd visit to Brekkukot. He and Álfgrímur strike up a relationship of sorts, especially after Álfgrímur is employed by Pastor Jóhann as a singer at funerals and learns of the concept of the one pure note. On one occasion he and Álfgrímur even exchange footwear. Yet Álfgrímur notes Garðar Hólm’s rather dressed down appearance. The singer is said to be unmarried (a very minor sub-plot has the daughter of the owner of Gúðmúndsen’s Store – an institution in Reykjavík – hankering after him) but there are also tales of a woman with two children in a hut in Jutland. Garðar Hólm exerts a large influence on Álfgrímur. In one of their conversations, he tells Álfgrímur in relation to wealth that, “The man who is worth anything never gets a jewel,” in another that in encyclopaedias, “murderers, particularly multiple murderers, command much more space than the greatest geniuses and men of intellect.” There are heavy allusions to the possibility that Garðar Hólm’s fame is nothing of the sort and is a sort of trick pulled off by Gúðmúndsen to bolster Icelanders’ thoughts of themselves.

Perhaps it is Álfgrímur’s almost naïve acceptance of things but there is in all this a dislocation almost like that encountered when reading fiction by South American writers. It can’t though be said to be magic realism because the writing is resolutely realistic throughout. There are things undoubtedly lost in translation and others that perhaps only Icelanders could fully understand. But the point of reading translated fiction is to help expand your view of the world. Laxness’s writing fulfils that function very well.

Pedant’s corner:- “the kind of audience he attracted there were” (the kind of audience… was,) “for a long rime now” (a long time, I think,) “‘And for that reason she does not want you not to drown in the Soga Stream’” (omit that second ‘not’,) galoshes (galoshes, x 2,) “a horde of fat men comes running over waving cheque books and hire him” (plus points for ‘comes’ but it then also ought to be ‘hires’.)

Death in Bordeaux by Allan Massie

Quartet, 2010, 284 p.

 Death in Bordeaux cover

Part One; Bordeaux, Spring 1940. A body is discovered and Superintendent Jean Lannes is called to investigate. He is acquainted with the deceased, Gaston Chambolley, whose penis has been cut off and placed in his mouth as if this were a crime committed because of Chambolley’s homosexuality. The body has been moved, though, and Lannes soon supects the motive was political rather than due to prejudice, disgust, or a sexual encounter gone wrong. Chambolley had been looking into the death of his brother Henri’s wife Pilar, a Spaniard active in the Republican movement.

The times hang over proceedings like a pall. Bordeaux’s mayor is a fascist and the city rife with prejudice against Spanish refugees, Reds and Jews. For the first half of the novel the Phoney War pervades the background, a threat merely delayed. Lannes’s son Dominique is in the army manning the Maginot line and his wife, Marguerite, sick with worry. Lannes’s brother-in-law, high up in local government, spouts the ruling party line. The supervising magistrate is keen to shut the inquiry down but Lannes and his colleagues do not like unsolved cases.

When Lannes is sent to the Comte de Grimaud who requests him to track down the source of poison pen letters about the Comte’s (fourth) wife, Miriam, he has been receiving, the murder case takes on a twist. Chambolley was an associate of the Comte’s grandson, Maurice, who seeks out Lannes to tell him he witnessed the possible murderers entering the ground floor of Chambolley’s apartment block the night he was killed. Further complications ensue when one of Chambolley’s contacts with the Spanish, Javier Cortazar, is also found murdered, again mutilated. This seems to lead only to another dead end, though.

The Comte’s heir, Edmond, another with fascist leanings – but national government contacts – continually warns Lannes off “disturbing” the family even after the Comte is found dead after a fall down the stairs. The de Grimaud housekeeper (in the long ago another of the Comte’s many sexual conquests, one of whom may even have been his own daughter, and the Comte the father of her illegitimate child) suspects that child, known variously as Marcel or Sigi to be the perpetrator. On leaving a restaurant where he had been meeting Edmond, Lannes gets shot and it is possible that Edmond may have engineered this.

In Part Two the chapters do not have the date headings that Part One’s did, but we are several months down the line, Lannes is back on duty, his wounded son is in a POW camp and Bordeaux under German occupation. The justiciaire, however, will be left to its own sphere except in so far as crime is political and impinges on Germans or the occupation. Lannes’s other children, Clothilde and Alain, do not quite know how to interact with the German soldier billeted in the flat above theirs, but Marguerite now has to worry whether Alain will be drawn into something foolish.

Under the occasional disapproval of his new boss, an Alsatian called Schnyder (who privately laments to Lannes that many of his young countrymen will now be drafted into the Wehrmacht,) and of the supervising magistrate, Lannes still plugs away at the Chambolley/Cortazar case. A trip to Vichy, that deluded spa town, to interview Edmond confirms his powerlessness in the face of the new order.

Massie is a Scot but when out of the blue one character uses the Scots word blethers, it seemed a little odd in the mouth of a Frenchwoman. Then again, why not? The novel wasn’t written in French. Considering Massie’s previous work it seems something of a diversion for Massie to take on the crime novel as a form, though he has previously interrogated the French experience during the Second World War.

If it is the duty of the detective story to set the world to rights this one fails in that regard, at least in this volume. By its end things are worse than at the start, with the Germans in charge and little place for honest policemen, unless they can keep their heads well down, and the lives of the general populace circumscribed and compromised.

It is only the first in a quartet though. The other three are on my shelves.

Pedant’s corner:- Lannes’ (innumerable instances, Lannes’s – of which there were some examples,) a missing full stop (x 2,) “hadn’t know Pilar well” (known,) “they were praised her in her day” (no first ‘her’, or, no ‘in her’ needed,) Republiqué (République,) “of is being” (of his being,) “an dark blue handkerchief” (a dark blue,) inasmuchas (in as much as,) Clotilde (several times, usually Clothilde but, once, Cothilde,) a line indentation in the middle of a paragraph, “grande-me’re’s health” (grand-mère’s,) “‘That’s what I trying to get across’” (what I was trying to get across,) “‘in the matter of subject to investigation’” (in the matter subject to investigation,) “‘all I was thinking off’” (thinking of,) innumerable misplaced quotation marks some even reversed or missing, missing commas before or after direct speech, “the length of tis body” (its body,) “had spoken for a document” (of a document,) Cours del’Intendance? (Cours de l’Intendance,) “no doubt either than in a strange way” (that in a strange way,) “they had not see the count” (seen,) “Blind Man’s Bluff” (as I recall it was always Blind Man’s Buff,) “ad sit with him” (and sit,) “‘we should only to see good order maintained’” (we should only [seek?] to see good order maintained,) “without new masters” (with our new masters.) “‘Poor Jules,’ He said” (‘Poor Jules,’ he said,) “and is actress friend” (and his.) “Or an instant she responded” (For an instant,) “a hornet’s next” (nest,) “if not immediately than in time” (then in time,) “‘nobody in their right minds ever going to buy’” (nobody in their right mind’s ever.) “‘I sure of it’” (I’m sure of it,) “‘how would we fell afterwards’” (how would we feel afterwards,) “‘wsn’t she?’” (wasn’t she,) “the blossomed with a rush” (then blossomed,) Lanne (Lannes.)

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