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The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel

Fourth Estate, 2020, 889 p, including 4p Author’s Note and 1 pAcknowledgements, plus ii p Contents, vi p Cast of Characters and ii p Tudor and Plantagenet descendant family trees.

The Mirror and the Light cover

As we have come to expect of Mantel this is exquisitely written. Each word, it seems, has been chosen with care, the prose burnished to perfection. At nearly 900 pages, though, it is not a quick read.

This final instalment of Mantel’s Tudor trilogy is bookended by two executions, that of Anne Boleyn and Cromwell’s own. Despite the reader’s knowledge of its narrator’s ultimate fate (surely no-one coming to this book could be unaware of it?) there is no sense of tension defrayed. We are in the moment – often in his past moments – with Thomas Cromwell in his efforts to serve Henry VIII and to frustrate the king’s enemies both at home and abroad (and for Cromwell to climb the greasy pole as high as possible while incidentally enriching himself, his family and his entourage.)

The Tudor dynasty is still on insecure ground, its already tenuous claim to the throne threatened by the lack of a male heir, Catholic pretenders (the Poles and the Courtenays) intriguing against Henry with the Spanish Emperor’s envoy and with the Pope, gossiping and insinuating against Cromwell but in the aftermath of Anne Boleyn’s death the most urgent task in the king’s households seems to be to chip out the HA HA insignia from all the heraldic emblems on the walls and to unstitch them from the embroidered cushions. Meanwhile the king’s latest marriage – to Jane Seymour – goes well, bringing benefits to the Seymours and Cromwell both, not least the marriage of Cromwell’s son into the Seymour family. Then, after producing a legitimate son for Henry, Jane dies; and, though Prince Edward thrives, everything is thrown into the air again.

This is an easy to absorb foray through the history of the times as seen through the eyes of one of its prime actors; the uprising against the King’s religious policies in the North of England that became known as The Pilgrimage of Grace, allayed by worthless promises and later crushed by the Duke of Norfolk; the diplomatic dance surrounding the marriages of James V of Scotland with French heiresses; the dissolution of the monasteries and the bounty that brings, both to the crown and to its servants; the arm’s length negotiations for Henry’s marriage with Anne of Cleves; that project’s dismal failure on the pair’s first sight of each other; the insinuation by the Duke of Norfolk of his flighty niece Katherine Howard into the King’s orbit; rumours that Cromwell seeks to marry the King’s first daughter, the Lady Mary. All goes well for Cromwell until suddenly it doesn’t, things he said in innocence are twisted against him, hoist by his own petard.

There are some quotable moments. Thinking of his dead wife, Cromwell remembers, “She kept a list of his sins, in the pocket of her apron: took it out and checked it from time to time.” (She needed to write them down?) Under questioning by Cromwell, Margaret Pole comments on the position of aristocratic women, “‘I have noticed’” she says, “‘common men often love their mothers. Sometimes they even love their wives.’” At one point Cromwell reflects that, “men pay for crimes, but not necessarily their own.”

However, at times I found myself struggling to concentrate on the text, perhaps due to this third Cromwell book’s length (or even its weight) or that I was reading it during lockdown with other things on my mind.

It is obvious in retrospect, though, that the whole trilogy has been the thoughts of Cromwell on the scaffold, scrolling through his life as he awaits the axe.

Overall, this trilogy is a tour-de-force, a great feat of evoking another time, of imagining another mind, and a brilliant achievement.

Pedant’s corner:- “her family sweep in” (sweeps in.) “None of them have kept their looks” (None of them has kept her looks.) “‘I am sure you she remembers you’” (no need for the ‘you’, or else ‘I assure you’ was meant,) burger (x2, burgher,) dottrels (dotterels.) “‘Did you not use to be’” (Did you not used to be’,) “lands at the town of Fife” (Fife is not a town, it’s a county, though it’s still sometimes referred to as the Kingdom of Fife.) “His party travel” (His party travels,) pyxs (pyxes,) “to see that that” (only one ‘that’ needed,) “spout it from their maws” (a maw is a stomach, not a mouth.)

Persian Dawns, Egyptian Nights by Lewis Grassic Gibbon

Polygon, 1998, 274 p, plus vi p Introduction (The Other Grassic Gibbon) by Ian Campbell and 3p Foreword (Good Wine) by J D Beresford.

 Persian Dawns, Egyptian Nights  cover

This edition was published as by Lewis Grassic Gibbon but originally saw the light in 1932 under the author’s real name J Leslie Mitchell. It is divided into two sections.

Persian Dawns is a series of tales supposedly mediated (and commented on) by our author from archive manuscripts in the Monastery of Mevr, written by Neesan Nerses, a Nestorian bishop of the 1200s, stories he called the Polychronicon.
I The Lost Constituent is the tale of Islam’s greatest General, Mirza Malik Berkhu, who comes back to Baghdad after his latest triumph to be told by the Caliph to sequester himself. He spends the next ten years in pursuit of the secret of eternal youth but is rudely interrupted by the Mongols.
II The Lovers are two men, one a Christian mercenary, Hormizd, son of Bishop Nerses, saved from slaughter at the hands of the Mongols by the other, a chief of the Outer Horde, who is later imprisoned for his pains, but set free by Hormizd as the Mongols return home. Theirs is a complicated relationship but it endures.
III The Floods of Spring is again set after the sack of Baghdad. A deputation from a Christian village on the Euphrates comes to the bishop at Alarlu to ask for a priest as theirs had been killed. The bishop returns with them to rouse the villagers both from their torpor and from the influence of Zeia and Romi, two wanderers who had turned up in the Mongols’ aftermath, to rebuild the dams that the Mongols destroyed.
IV The Last Ogre lives in a cleft in the rocks in the mountains of the Kablurz Beg where the bishop’s daughter, Amima, effective manager of Alarlu while her father pores over his manuscripts, had gone hunting despite his refusal of permission. The Beg is said to be the haunt not only of wild animals but also strange mythical demons. Having lost her weapons and horse in an encounter with a lion Amima finds shelter with the creature, a last vestige of prehistoric times.
V Cartaphilus is a cyclic tale; of Baisan Evid, imprisoned in a lightless dungeon for consorting with the Caliph’s favourite, Miriam. He has a companion in the darkness, eventually revealed as Cartaphilus, the denier of Christ, Wandering Jew of Christian legend. On his release, fired with a desire to persuade Cartaphilus of Christ’s godhood and so precipitate the Second Coming, Evid roams the Middle-Eastern world in search of Cartaphilus, via the tomb of Doubting Thomas among other places, before returning to Baghdad and a different realisation.
VI Dawn in Alarlu might have been crafted to counterpoint the biblical phrase What shall it profit a man though he gain the whole world and lose his own soul? as the bishop’s daughter takes the side of a monk escaped from the monastery where he was taken as a child and subjected to its harsh discipline. By escaping he stood to lose his soul; but he had gained the world.

The stories in Egyptian Nights are listed alternately under the titles of two poems by John Keats, L’Allegro and Il Penseroso. All the L’Allegro stories are prefaced by the same paragraph of introduction and are as-told-by tales which Sergie Lubow, a former White Russian, relates to our unnamed narrator. The Il Pensero stories are more straightforwardly written.

I Amber in Cold Sea tells of Gavril Dan’s escape from the Crimea as the Bolsheviks took over and how that relates to the couple Lubow and our narrator see coming out of a taxi one Cairo night.
Il Penseroso
II Revolt. The same night as his sick son Hassan’s life hangs in the balance, Rejeb ibn Saud is to give the final exhortation to a crowd before a projected uprising. He resolves to encourage or condemn the revolt according to the message he will receive as to his son’s survival.
III Camelia Comes to Cairo. Camelia is a woman who had left London under the cloud of a common complaint five years earlier, then studied medicine in Dresden, before coming to Cairo as it needed a female doctor. She has to prove her worth to Lubow’s friend Adrian – and his catty sister.
Il Penseroso
IV Dienekes’ Dream tells of how a street in Cairo came to have ϴΕΜΟΠΥLΑΙ inscribed on its wall, the site of a last stand against eviction by Greek immigrants who had settled on a midden and turned the site into a thriving weaving concern.
V Siwa Plays the Game. Lubow tells of his commissioning by an English author of novels set in Egypt (a place said author had never visited) to show him the real Egypt. When this reality fails to live up to the author’s imaginings – too mundane, too squalid – Lubow and his Egyptian guide determine to furnish him with what he desires.
Il Penseroso
VI The Children of Ceres is a kind of Good Samaritan story, with everyone passing a poor old woman in the street until one woman recognises her.

All the stories are accomplished enough in themselves but could perhaps have done without the ‘throat-clearing’ introductions. Very little hint of Gibbon’s Scottishness shows through. But that is as it should be, given their settings. But Gibbon is never less than readable.

Sensitive souls should note that the text contains the word “nigger”.

Pedant’s corner:- In the Introduction; Wells’ (Wells’s,) Nerses’ (Nerses’s.) Otherwise; Nerses’ (Nerses’s,) noice (noise,) Tigris’ (Tigris’s,) Dienekes’ (Dienekes’s)stratagem (stratagem,) staunching (stanching,)

Women of Wonder, Edited by Pamela Sargent

THE CLASSIC YEARS. Science Fiction by women from the 1940 to the 1970s
A Harvest Original, Harcourt Brace, 1995, 446 p, including 20 p Introduction by Pamela Sargent, 14 p “About the Authors”, 1 p “About the Editor”, 13 p Recommended Reading: Science Fiction by Women 1818-1978, and 2 p Permission Acknowledgements.

 Women of Wonder: The Classic Years cover

Since it covers some of the same ground it was odd reading this at the same time as All that Outer Space Allows. (I tend to read short fiction during the day and novels in the evening.)
In the Introduction Pamela Sargent traces the history of women writing SF which goes back a long way even if you discount Mary Shelley. It is true, though, that the profile of female SF writers certainly became more prominent in the 1970s. The stories in the book are listed on the contents page by the date when they were first published. I have included those dates below.
No Woman Born by C L Moore (1944) explicitly riffs on the Frankenstein story. Here a female dancer who died in a theatre fire has had her brain preserved and placed in a wonderfully supple metallic body so that she (it?) can continue performing. “‘The whole idea was to re-create what I’d lost so that it could be proved that beauty and talent need not be sacrificed by the estruction of parts or all of the body.’” The usual philosophical considerations apply.
In the war-ridden, radiation-raddled world of That Only a Mother by Judith Merril (1948) there has been an increase in the mutation rate, but the worst cases can be predicted and prevented. Infanticide committed by fathers is also on the rise. Margaret gives birth to a daughter while her husband is away on war service. The child is precociously gifted as regards cognitive development and speech. The father does not realise anything else might be amiss till he returns.
Contagion by Katherine McLean (1950) is set on a planet where a newly touched down expedition discovers previous settlers, who it turns out were severely affected by a disease they called melting sickness. Only certain genetic strains are able to survive.
In The Woman from Altair by Leigh Brackett (1951) the title character has been brought back from Altair as his wife by, David, one of the famous spacefaring MacQuarrie family. His brother Rafe, never eager to go into space, and his girl-friend Marthe begin to have suspicions when odd things start happening in the MacQuarrie household.
In a time of cold-war stress Short in the Chest by Margaret St Clair (1954) features the curious military custom of dighting, sexual encounters between members of the various armed services in order to relieve inter-service tension. Marine Major Sonya Briggs takes her problems with it to a huxley – a philosophic robot.
The box of Zenna Henderson’s The Anything Box (1956) is the invisible possession of Sue-lynn, a pupil in the narrator’s class. It nevertheless has weight and is where she goes to retreat from the world and find herself.
Death Between the Stars by Marion Zimmer Bradley (1956) is the tale of Helen Vargas, forced by circumstance and against all Terran norms and expectations to occupy the same cabin as a telepathic alien on her way back to Earth to avoid the outbreak of a war. The treatment of the alien by the prejudiced crew dismays her but its telepathic intrusions are equally disturbing. In death – brought on by its inhumane treatment – the alien finds a way to prolong its life, and study humans in secret.
The Ship Who Sang 1 by Anne McCaffrey (1961) is the story of the brain of a child malformed at birth but taken and grown inside a metal case eventually to become the controlling entity of a spaceship. She finds she can sing at any pitch and register.
The aliens in When I Was Miss Dow by Sonya Dorman Hess (1961) – who started her writing career as plain Sonya Dorman – can take various shapes at will and are able to be reconstituted in tanks. However, some of them are dependent on sulfadiazole which they can earn by working for humans. Our narrator reconstitutes as Miss Dow (recquiring her to have two brain lobes) and finds she is attracted to Dr Proctor, the human colony’s head biologist, whose assistant she becomes.
The Food Farm by Kit Reed (1966) is where our narrator is now in charge. Sent there by her parents to get over her addiction to binge-eating, a habit encouraged by hearing the singing of Tommy Fango on the radio, she rebelled when Fango visited and she was not allowed to see him, sought him out and discovered his main predilection, which she now seeks to fulfill.
The Heat Death of the Universe by Pamela Zoline (1967). “Sarah Boyle is a vivacious and witty young wife and mother, educated at a fine Eastern college, proud of her growing family, which keeps her happy and busy around the house, involved in many hobbies and community activities, and only occasionally given to obsessions concerning Time/Entropy/Chaos and Death.” Yeah, right. More like, “a woman’s work is never done” – and sometimes undoes her.
The Power of Time by Josephine Saxton (1971) uses the word Negro, likely to be frowned upon nowadays. It reverses the usual way of cross-Atlantic transactions. An English woman buys the whole of Manhattan island (previously owned by a descendant of native Americans) and transfers it to Leicestershire.
False Dawn by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro (1972) is set after an environmental apocalypse. A woman armed with a crossbow makes her way across the devastated landscape, trying to avoid the Pirates and mutant hunters. This contains the usual violent scenes accompanying such tales.
Nobody’s Home by Joanna Russ (1972) posits a future time of resource plenitude where people can travel the world at whim via transmission booths and hold parties willy-nilly. Leslie Smith turns up at one of these and puts a downer on it.
In The Funeral by Kate Wilhelm (1972) all non-citizens are the property of the state. This is a dystopia, with pre-echoes of The Handmaid’s Tale, where Carla has been brought up under the educational tenets of Madame Westfall. The funeral of the title is Westfall’s. She had hidden some secret knowledge the powers that be want to uncover. Carla finds the hiding place.
Vonda N McIntyre’s justly award-winning Of Mist and Grass and Sand (1973) tells of an incident in the life of a healer whose medicines are incubated by snakes before they bite the sufferer to “inject” the cure. Her clients of course fear her reptilian companions.
Another celebrated piece of feminist SF is The Women Men Don’t See2 (1973) published by Alice Sheldon under her pen name of James Tiptree Jr. Given that at the time of publication many thought “Tiptree” was a man, the story’s title is deliciously ironic. In it a plane with three passengers, our narrator Don plus a mother and daughter, goes down off the Yucatán peninsula. Don’s fantasies about female abilities are soon disabused as Ruth Parsons turns out to be very capable indeed. Also when he mentions women’s rights she tells him, “Women have no rights, Don, except what men allow us. Men are more aggressive and powerful, and they run the world. When the next real crisis upsets them, our so-called rights will vanish like … smoke. We’ll be back where we always were. Property. And whatever has gone wrong will be blamed on our freedom, like the fall of Rome was. You’ll see.” Sadly, probably only too true. However, the intrusion of aliens near the end into felt like it came from another story altogether.
The Warlord of Saturn’s Moons by Eleanor Arnason (1974) tells how a cigar-smoking, tea-drinking, silver-haired maiden of thirty-five in a world where the usual bad stuff is on the news writes the story of the title, a somewhat schlocky enterprise which will read as bad as it sounds.
In Ursula K Le Guin’s The Day Before the Revolution (1974) an old anarchist, inspiration to her followers remembers her life of struggle and ruminates on what it all means. “Favouritism, elitism, leader-worship, they crept back and cropped out everywhere. But she had never hoped to see them eradicated in her lifetime, in one generation; only Time works the great changes.” She also comments on how people see her. “How brave of you to go on, to work, to write, in prison, after such a defeat for the Movement, after your partner’s death, people had used to say. Damn fools. What else had there been to do? Bravery, courage – What was courage? She had never figured it out. Not fearing, some said. Fearing going on, others said. But what could one do but go on? Had one any real choice, ever?” Human and humane.
The Family Monkey by Lisa Tuttle (1977) is an oddly constructed tale told from four different viewpoints of the adoption by a couple in Texas of an alien who crashlands in their graveyard. He is effectively part of the family down several generations. The concept of sleep is alien to him but when he finally achieves that state he experiences the humans’ dreams – and some of them experience his. The story contains the word “nigger,” reflecting the time and place in which that scene was set.
A totally immune-compromised woman is the ideal choice for the first interstellar human traveller in View from a Height by Joan D Vinge (1978.) Her trip gives her a perspective on life.

Pedant’s corner:- 1“When they were forced to, Central Worlds shrugged its shoulders” (either ‘it was forced to’ or, ‘their shoulders”,) “sound issued through microphones rather than mouths” (microphones take in, they do not emit sound. Loudspeaker is the appropriate word,) “her throat microphone” (her throat loudspeaker,) “spoke to Jennan only through her central mike” (through her central speaker.) 2“A flock of ibis are circling us” (a flock of ibis is circling us.)

All That Outer Space Allows by Ian Sales

Apollo Quartet 4, Whippleshield Books, 2015, 155 p, including 2 p Notes, 4 p You Have Been Reading About writers and editors, 1 p Further Reading, 2 p Bibliography, and 1 p Online Sources.

 All That Outer Space Allows cover

Like previous books in his Apollo Quartet the author does not take a straightforward approach in this short novel. It is ostensibly the life story of Ginny Eckhardt, wife of Apollo astronaut Walden Eckhardt (a character based on actual Apollo 15 Lunar Module pilot Jim Irwin.) On the quiet, though, Ginny is a writer of Science Fiction, and the book, as well as delineating the lot of an astronaut’s wife in the 1960s, describes the evolution of Ginny’s idea to write an alternative history of the US space programme in which women were the astronauts. She knows they are at least as capable as the men, if not more so. However, her personal life as first an Air Force wife, and then an astronaut’s after Walden is picked in the latest round of recruits, becomes increasingly circumscribed. This is how it was in the 1960s. Ginny’s mother, along with others of her generation, had been quickly levered back into the home after working during the Second World War, and forever resented it. Ginny herself had made sure to obtain a degree before marrying but has no opportunity to use it. (The role of astronaut’s wife is as prop and support, adornment, rather than a person in her own right.) Given her inner thoughts, the solidarity she feels with other female writers of SF in the 1960s and of the position of women generally, Ginny’s attitudes to this might have been expressed more forcefully, she seems too willing to conform to the role set – even if she does resolve to find out as much technical detail of the Apollo Programme as possible in order to enhance her fiction. We are told she loves Walden, but we don’t really feel it, and Walden gives little back in the way of emotional support, not even wondering how the sanctuary of his room manages to stay tidy and clean.

In common with other instalments of the Apollo Quartet Sales gives us (in boxes lined-off on the pages) technical and biographical information. So here we have a table of contents from Galaxy magazine, Vol 26, issue 3, February 1968 (which contained Ginny’s story “The Spaceships Men Don’t See” as by V G Parker;) comments on the position and relative scarcity of female SF writers of the time; biographical details from a NASA press release of the 19 newly recruited astronauts of 1966; a letter to Ginny from another woman SF writer signed YouKay; the utterly male Hugo Awards Winners listings for 1966; a historical overview of Ginny’s writing career; the complete text of “The Spaceships Men Don’t See” (a nice piece of literary ventriloquism by Sales, though it reads more like a 1950s piece;) a specification for Lunar Module Cockpit Simulation training; a letter to the editor of Galaxy bemoaning “Mr” Parker’s contribution to that Feb 1966 issue; another NASA spec, this time for the Lunar Module; one-sentence extracts from SF stories by women each commenting on some aspect of the female experience; a Wikipedia biography of Walden Eckhardt’s life; the Nasa specs for spacesuit materials; a short transcript of Neil Armstrong’s early exchanges with ground control just after he set foot on the Moon’s surface that first time; the launch schedule for Apollo 15 (Walden’s mission;) a NASA description of the Apollo 15 landing site; V G Parker’s entry from the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.

This is an Altered History, though. In Ginny’s world, SF is written, edited and read mainly by women and denigrated more (if that’s possible) because of that. At several points Sales addresses the reader directly by interpolating comments on his choices as a writer when composing the story and on the subject of Science Fiction as an enterprise, especially on how it generally does not reflect the harsh realities of space travel. Worth reading in and of itself All That Outer Space Allows also acts as a kind of primer in the history of women writers of SF in the world the reader knows.

Pedant’s corner:- “makes turban of a second towel” (makes a turban is more natural sounding,) “and so predates Ginny’s migration” (postdates,) “Only a Mother” (“That Only a Mother”), “There was loud thunk” (a loud thunk,) “The descent stage measure ten feet seven inches high by… ” (‘measures ten feet seven inches high’. This was in the NASA Lunar Module spec so I assume was their mistake,) vapourised (vaporised,) “as she lays on the beach” (as she lies on the beach,) misrembering (misremembering.)

Crossriggs by Jane & Mary Findlater

(The title page has Mary & Jane Findlater) Virago, 1986, 382 p, plus viii p Introduction. First published 1908.

Crossriggs cover

In Crossriggs, a town an easy train ride from Edinburgh, the locals have always looked up to the inhabitants of the Manse, for many years the preserve of the Maitland family. The present incumbent is not a Maitland but the people still look to Robert Maitland, who has come back to live in the town, for advice. The book, though, mainly focuses on Alexandra Hope (known as Alex) whose father Alexander is an idealistic fruitarian and a bit of a no-hoper, and seems to the reader to have no visible means of support. Through Alex the Findlaters make much of the fact of the family’s poverty (illustrated mostly as a matter of not enough food and money. But these things are relative; they have a kitchen-and-house helper in Katherine, and a drawing room.) Important to the overall story arc is the inhabitant of the local big house, Admiral Casillis, now blind. We are told that nothing much happened in Crossriggs till Alex’s sister Matilda had to return from Canada to her childhood home – with her five children – when her husband died, and the Admiral’s grandson Vanbrugh (Van) came to live with him. But even after this nothing much happens in the text for a long while.

To help support the six extra mouths Alex is of course forced to take a job, a process she finds embarrassing. She undertakes to read to Admiral Casillis every day bar Sundays, for two hours each day, mostly the newspaper. The youthful Van is struck by her and takes to visiting the Hope household on almost a daily basis. He is too young for Alex who strives to avoid confronting his regard for her. A public reading at another big house leads to Alex taking on more readings in town (Edinburgh.) In the meantime she turns down John Reid’s marriage proposal with the excuse to herself that she is too busy and has to provide for her nephews and nieces. It is Maitland, though, who bails out her father from an unwise guarantee and pays for the children’s education. She is of course in love with Robert Maitland who it seems has an equal affection for her but both cannot express it as he is already married. Her affection shows itself in an inability to control her verbal meanderings in his presence.

There are instances where the character’s language reflects the writers’ times. Van expresses dissatisfaction with his grandfather’s treatment of him. Alex replies, “‘If you had to work hard for your living, like me, you’d find you had more to think.’” His riposte is one decidedly not for those sensitive to modern properieties. “‘If I’d been allowed …. to work at anything that interests me, I’d slave like a nigger.’”

We also, twice, have another expression of prejudice. The first is when Alex says to her niece someone is, “‘-a little Jewish. She stopped.’ Sally flushed. ‘Why are Jews so nasty, Aunt Alex?’”
This is not really excused by Alex’s reply. “‘They’re not dear; far from it. An ancient race, the cleverest and noblest in the world in many ways,’” with some added excuse about Jews being an Eastern people and “fond of colour.”
Later we also had, “‘And he’s really not so -’ Matilda paused. Alex …. remarked gently – ‘Semitic, dear, is the word you want.’”

The book suffers a little from us being introduced to too many characters too early, giving the reader little chance to get to know them and hence care about their fates. However, the later appearance of the fateful Miss Orranmore gives us no doubt as to the kind of woman she is. Its main theme is of pride and conformity but like much serious literature Crossriggs treats with love – albeit obliquely and mostly unspoken – and death. Here any sex is resolutely off-stage, or at least only revealed by its usual consequence. Paul Binding’s Introduction says that the Findlaters – who wrote separately as well as together – had early success (Virginia Woolf was among their admirers) but their popularity dropped off in the 1920s. seems a very Victorian era novel. The thought, “‘You don’t suppose, do you, at your age, that the things one doesn’t speak about are the things one forgets?’” has, however, not lost any of its pertinence.

Pedant’s corner:- On the back cover; Mathilda (in the text it’s Matilda,) Locheanhead (Lochearnhead.) Otherwise; some nineteenth century spellings, repellant (repellent) etc, “from whence” (whence means ‘from where’,) “you mentioned seventeen shillings” (actually two shillings a day = twelve shillings for six days, but Alex had enquired about two and six a day = fifteen shillings,) some missing commas before pieces of direct speech, ramshakle (ramshackle.) Chapter XVIII’s heading is omitted and starts at the top of the page where the other chapters started lower down. These next, with missing letters within words, must have been in the original publication from which this edition looks to have been reproduced, [“every bead twin king” (twinkling,) “rath r” (rather,) Matida (Matilda,) “one f” (one of,) “bo anical” (botanical,) “‘W hear’” (We hear,) “momen ” (moment,) ] “sound asleep more once” (once more,) “Aunt E. V. regarded he with her penetrating glance” (regarded her,) “so that is was not difficult” (so that it was,) Cassilis’ (Cassilis’s,) an opened quote that is never closed.

Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov

Penguin, 1991, 236 p, plus xviii p Introductory essay by Mary McCarthy and 12 p Index.

 Pale Fire   cover

On the face of it an exploration of the last work of a recently murdered US poet, John Shade of Wordsmith College, New Wye, Appalachia, with a foreword by the narrator, Charles Kinbote, the poem itself and the narrator’s commentary on it, Pale Fire (that poem’s title as well as this novel’s) is actually something else again. Or several things again.

The foreword gives the narrator’s account of how the poem was written (on eighty index cards) and how he came to be in charge of both its editing and publication but also provides hints of the shifting ground the text in front of the reader embodies. Kinbote’s relationship with Shade and his wife Sybil (names here tend to the symbolic,) is not particularly friendly; Kinbote comes across as something of a stalker and voyeur. Other academics’ doubts about the poem or its significance are dismissed as nonsense. Kinbote slips in references to his origins in the country of Zembla and his translations of previous Shade poems into Zemblan. That Kinbote lives in a house rented from a Professor Goldsworth – also of Wordsmith College – rings bells to a Spoonerist (compare Wordsworth and Goldsmith, noted poets.) In this section Kinbote suggests his commentary ought to be read before Shade’s poem. Perhaps I should have taken that advice but I doubt it makes much difference. The book seemed to read perfectly well in the printed order and the poem is comprehensible enough on its own in any case.

The poem itself, in four Cantos of two different lengths but symmetrical overall, amounting to 999 lines – each an iambic pentameter – is comprised of rhyming couplets but never at any time reduces to doggerel. Kinbote asserts the poem is actually 1000 lines long, as its first was also to be its last but was never written down. (For the symmetry, it would have to be.)

The meat of the book is in the commentary, though, where Kinbote’s conviction that he supplied Shade with the idea for his poem with his reminiscences of Zembla becomes increasingly hard to credit, mixed up as it is with his potted history of Zembla and its last king, Charles the Beloved, its revolution and the king’s unlikely escape though an underground passage used by his grandfather for illicit liaisons with an actress in the theatre where she performed. Kinbote parallels the writing of the poem to and with the journey from Zembla to the US of Jakob Gradus, a gunman hired by the new Zemblan regime’s secret police to kill the king. Gradus is also known as Jacques d’Argus, Jacques Derges and Jack Grey. This last is the name Shade’s killer, an escapee from a lunatic asylum, gave to the police. Through it all Kinbote, whose name is more likely Botkin, a refugee from Zembla teaching in the Russian Department at Wordsmith’s, gradually reveals his true identity as that last king (or, at least, of his belief in that identity) and that he was the intended target of the gunman. But even his account of the shooting is suspect, as the two witnesses, Gradus and a gardener who intervened to restrain him, recall things differently in later statements to the police. Nabokov is not only presenting us with an unreliable narrator but also an unreliable commentator.

Perhaps I ought to mention that at one point Kinbote relays to us Shade’s disquisition on the use of the word “coloured” to refer to “negroes.”

Mary McCarthy’s essay calls the book, “a Jack-in-the-box, a Fabergé egg, a clockwork toy, a chess problem, an infernal machine, a trap to catch reviewers, a cat and mouse game, a do-it-yourself kit.” It is all of these and more. Pale Fire is an astonishing feat of construction. An intellectual maze, a hall of distorting mirrors, but still utterly readable. A portrait of an unhinged mind convinced it is entirely rational, a fillip to those who delight in the use of such words as pudibundity, fatidic and inenubilable (even if they have to look them up.) Food for the mind, if not quite the heart.

Pedant’s corner:- In the Introductory essay; Gradus’ (Gradus’s.) For some of the others I wasn’t sure these were real typos or indications that Kinbote was deranged: sleezy (sleazy,) “another boy, another boy” (why the repetition?) “the harmonies hiving in the man” (hiving?) Keats’ (Keats’s,) momento (memento,) demolishment (demolition, but this was in dialogue,) John Slade (Shade,) sprung (sprang,) “harebreath escapes” (hairsbreadth escapes,) confusely (confusedly,) hoplessness (hopelessness,) Ukranian (Ukrainian,) remindful (reminiscent,) ginko (ginkgo.)

Where the Apple Ripens by Jessie Kesson

B&W, 2000, 192 p, including xii p Introduction by Isobel Murray.

 Where the Apple Ripens  cover

Kesson drew on her early life for inspiration in much of her fiction, which in the Introduction we are told was always composed in the form of a play for radio first. Several of the stories here reflect rural life, some are set in institutions, all are unmistakably Scottish. Most are adorned with page centred quotations from poems or hymns or songs. The characters within them are vibrant and individual; depicted economically, vividly and with compassion. This is good stuff.

The longest tale here is the first, Where the Apple Ripens, a novella describing two days in the life of Isabel Emslie, set to take up a place in service the next week in the big town. Her last schoolday is marred by its coincidence with the funeral of Helen Mavor, who had let herself waste away after the birth of her illegitimate baby. The novella is perfused with the contrast between Calvinist rectitude and human impulse, her mother’s admonishments, the prurient comments Isabel overhears as she passes the local bus stop, the thinly veiled innuendos and warnings, her poetic sensibility – illustrated by copious quotations from poems and hymns – her youthful exuberance and desire to dance (a heavy signal, this,) the bravado she expresses when she says she’s ‘not feared’ of Alex Ewan, the local man with a reputation, a bravado which is later revealed to have face value.
In Stormy Weather such inclemency is the only reason Matron can muster not to allow the older orphanage girls out to go to the Band of Hope meetings on Friday nights. The story, however, is more about the compromises, the quids pro quo, the petty revenges the inmates have with and over one another.
Set in 1923, ‘Once in Royal…’ relates the excitement around the scramble for tickets for the Chief Constable’s Christmas dinner for poor children as felt by Sarah, who does not consider herself the ‘poor, wee soul’ of others’ opinion.
The Gowk, Jockie Riddrie, is the local simpleton, forever hanging around the school fence, drooling, or exposing himself. After allowing herself to be enticed up into the woods young Liz Aitken becomes pregnant but steadfastly refuses to reveal to her family who the father is. For the village folk and especially the gowk’s stepmother, Kate, Jockie becomes the obvious candidate to blame. But his father Hugh knows better.
Having caught the biggest tiddler in a jam jar The Bridge is where the local boys span, hand over hand on its girders, across the river below.
Until Such Times is the interval during which narrator ‘you’ are staying with your Grandmother and the Invalid Aunt away from your Aunt Ailsa (who, we infer, is not your aunt) whom the Invalid Aunt says is man-mad and that ‘you’ would clip her wings. Invalid Aunt never has a good word to say about anyone but ‘you’ are devoted to ‘Aunt’ Ailsa, who is actually trying to do her best for ‘you’.
Another story narrated by an unnamed ‘you’, Good Friday is not the religious festival but the tale of a sufferer from acute neurasthenia longing for the day she’ll be released from mental hospital.
As its title suggests Life Model is about a sitter for Art Students, one who could hold a pose better than most, and of her secret for being able to do so.
In an intimation of mortality Road of no Return sees a woman come back to her childhood village overlooking Loch Ness and finds it deserted. But her memories remain.
Set in an old people’s home and with a kind of time-slipping narrative Dear Edith … describes the letters Mrs Cresswell composes to her dead friend Edith, interspersing these with the conversations of the staff.
This Wasted Day is the last of a tinker, arraigned at the Pearly Gates by those who looked down on her during her life with all their misconceptions and prejudices. The Big Man turns out to have different ideas from them but there is still a twist to come.

Pedant’s corner:- In the Introduction; Alex Ewen (the book’s text has Ewan,) “Never had Isabel ran so fast” (the passage was in standard English not vernacular Scots, so, ‘run’,) paeon, (paean,) an opening quotation mark that was unclosed, sang (again, the passage was in standard English, so, sung,) ommission (omission,) court yard (courtyard,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, another missing after one, momentoes (the correct ‘mementoes’ appeared two lines later,) descendents (descendants,) vocal chords (cords.)

The Pure Land by Alan Spence

Canongate, 2006, 428 p.

 The Pure Land cover

Ipponmatsu is a house still left standing, albeit with every window shattered, after the A-bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. Two GIs break in to find its Japanese occupant, Samurai sword in hand, about to commit seppuku. They are surprised to find he speaks English. He tells them his father was Scottish.

The Pure Land is the fictionalised life story of that Scot, Aberdonian Tom Glover, taken on by Jardine Matheson to work for them in a Japan newly opened up to trade after Commodore Perry’s Black Ships had forced the Shogun to end Japan’s isolation.

Spence paints a compelling picture; first of the life, and love, Glover left behind, of his arrival in Japan as Guraba-San and a first encounter with the Samurai Takashi, the strangeness he found there, the mistrust, the Samurai striding about, casually disembowelling and beheading any who displeased them (and not just foreigners,) the tensions and strains within Japanese society, the disagreements of the Choshu and Satsuma clans, those wishing Japan to modernise, others fiercely resistant to foreign influence corrupting their unsullied country, the consolations he found after crossing the hesitation- and mind-made-up bridges to the flower quarter, his acumen in business and the risks he took when striking out on his own, his taking a Japanese wife, Sono, the loss of their child and relationship, his introduction of a railway to the country (a development not built on for decades.)

An instance of arrogance and carelessness on the part of an Englishman leads to his death. In the retaliation by British gun-boat diplomacy at Kagoshima, Sono was killed. Undaunted, Glover indulges in gun-running to both sides in Japan’s nternal conflict, amassing a paper fortune but incurring debt, and is instrumental in sending representatives, first of the Satsuma, then later of the hitherto reluctant to modernise Choshu clan, to Britain, where they see the future. Through his contacts with a shipyard in Aberdeen he provides for the foundation of Japan’s shipbuilding industry via dry dock construction, and acts as middle-man for the purchase of ships for Japan’s first modern navy.

This is all wondeful stuff. I would have rated this book very highly on its execution up to its midsections and, in retrospect, there is a subtly handled recurrring motif of bridges being both safe pathways yet also dangerous. However, when the Japanese crisis comes Glover is not involved personally and the text has to resort to telling, giving us a short history lesson in which the Tokugawa Shogunate is finally overthrown and the Meiji Emperor restored to ultimate power. In the ensuing uncertain times the currency collapses as do Glover’s finances and he has to sell his coal mine, the first in Japan, but remains to manage it. His friendship with the rising politician Ito Hirubumi lets him in on the ground floor of a company whose symbol will be three diamonds, Mitsu-bishi, and he also finds time to found Kirin beer. At one point he regales a drinking companion with the words, “‘The Scotch, however, is from home. There are some things even the Japanese shouldn’t be trusted to copy!’”

All this is background though. The book is at its finest when dealing with Glover’s relationships with women (first love Annie, where the Brig o’ Balgownie over the River Don features prominently, first wife Sono, the courtesan Maki Kaga – an affair said to have been the inspiration for the opera Madame Butterfly – his housekeeper Tsuru, who falls for him, and whom he marries) and on personal thoughts and feelings, the perennial novelistic concerns of love, sex and death, here with the fate of a nation thrown in, the astonishing transformation of Japan from a mediæval feudocracy to a Twentieth Century world power in less than forty years. Unknown to Glover Maki bears him a son while he is temporarily back in Aberdeen, a son whom he later adopts, the book’s central human source of unease.

At times Spence can’t resist the opportunity for his story to comment on itself. One of Glover’s accomplices keeps asking him, “And then?” when he outlines developments in Japan’s future. The latter part of Glover’s life is somewhat skimmed over, though. The reflection on his life represented by his interview by an American reporter in 1911, questioning Japan’s expansion into Manchuria and Korea, is probably justified but the underlining of the irony of Mitsubishi’s Nagasaki shipyards being a target of the second atomic bomb attack in the 2005 chapter really isn’t. In that same section one of the characters wants to know what happened to the woman in the story. We find out in the last.

Pedant’s corner:- a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, “a leather football” (in 1862? Not impossible.) Queensberry rules (these weren’t drawn up till 1865,) rowboat (rowing boat,) sprung (sprang,) a missing opening quotation mark (x2,) Shinsasburo (previously Shinsaburo,) sunk (sank,) payed (paid,) “‘I said For God’s sake why?’” is missing quote marks around ‘For God’s sake why?’; ditto with the ‘I said Why not?’ in “I said Why not?” “blew her nose hard” (this was a Japanese woman in Nagasaki in 2005. I remember reading once that to a Japanese, to blow your nose in public is extremely rude,) Ryonen (later, always rendered as Ryonan.)

Darkchild by Sydney J van Scyoc

Penguin, 1984, 253 p.

 Darkchild cover

Mankind has spread out amongst the stars and adapted to the various planets where it has settled, speciating as required. One of these is the planet Brakrath, which is ruled by female barohna, able to channel the powers of stones to help melt winter snows and allow agriculture to take place. The narrative is carried by four voices, The Boy, Khira, Darkchild, The Guide, and Khira’s grandmother Kadura. That makes five you say? Well yes, but the boy from chapter 1 has become Darkchild by Chapter 3.

Khira’s mother Tiahna is the local barohna and remote as a result. Khira has effectively been brought up by her sister Alzaja who is in turn about to make a trip to the mountains (where their other sisters have journeyed before, not to come back,) to try to find the stone in her heart that will allow her to take over from Tiahna, or be killed in the attempt by the beast she challenges. Khira is left to face the winter alone in Tiahna’s palace. After an overwhelming noise wakes her one night she finds a boy in one of the tower rooms. She dubs him Darkchild. He is under compulsion to experience and remember everything about his new home. (In chapter one, as The Boy, he had been removed from a previous family on another world and subjected to medical intervention.) In his head is The Guide, a memory storage and control device he can only subvert by deluging it with sensory information.

Khira is alternately bewildered and intrigued by Darkchild but still befriends him. The interludes where The Guide takes over his body baffle her, though. Things come to head when the expedition of another human race, the Arnimi, potbellied with greying hair that hangs to their shoulders, return to the barohnial hall from their winter excursion investigating how the Brakrathi have adapted to their world, only to prevent Darkchild’s access to their quarters and recommend Khira puts him out in the snow. They say he is a Rauthimage and speak to Darkchild in his own language.

Not till Tiahna returns for the thaw do they reveal they find Rauthimages abhorrent, cloned from a cell specimen of a man called Birnam Rauth without his permission and hence anathema to them. Rauthimages are employed by a ruthless race called Benderzic to find weaknesses in adapted human races so as to exploit them.

The story juggles Khira’s experiences with Darkchild’s and The Guide’s and the one chapter narrated by Kadura fills in Brakrathi background.

This is a solid piece of Science Fiction of its time, with a well-worked out background and a more than adequate depiction of the psychologies of its main actors. (The Arnimi and Benderzic remain somewhat sketchy, though.)

Pedant’s corner:- vestigal (vestigial,) hostess’ (hostess’s,) minx’ (minx’s,) grill (grille,) Bullens’ (Bullens’s,) hiccoughing (there is no connection to a cough; hiccupping,) “‘you won’t even see my any more’” (see me any more,) “Khira led way” (led the way; several more instances of ‘led way’,) Rabbus’ (Rabbus’s,) Baronha (elsewhere the spelling always ended ‘ohna’,) snowminx’ (snowminx’s,) pondersome (ponderous,) vocal chords (cords,) pondersomely (ponderously.)

The Apple by Michel Faber

Crimson Petal Stories. Canongate, 2011, 206 p, plus xi p Foreword.

 The Apple cover

Faber’s foreword tells of the countless letters he was sent praising his novel The Crimson Petal and the White, or lamenting its inconclusive ending, the entreaties he received to let his readers know what happened next. This volume contains stories featuring characters who appeared in the earlier book (which I have not read, but did watch the television adaptation) but only those tales that demanded to exist. The rest he had to let slip away.

It has to be said that, here, Faber’s writing is masterful. In a few deft strokes he conjures up the times he is writing about and the characters he depicts.

Christmas in Silver Street sees sixteen year-old but nevertheless experienced prostitute Sugar give little Christopher, the brothel’s drudge of a linen-fetcher, a surprise Christmas gift of chicken and pastries.
In Clara and the Rat Man Clara has fairly recently been reduced to prostitution by an insensitive reference from a former employer. The Rat Man, a veteran of the Afghan War gives her a shilling a week to grow the nail of her middle finger and, once it has grown, ten more to insert it in a particular place while his dog is engaged in pit ratting.
Miss Emmeline Curlew’s father worries that if she doesn’t marry while young she never will, as she has inherited his aquiline nose, long face and strong jaw. Along with a photograph, Chocolate Hearts from the New World are an addition to the courteous reply upon which she muses after receiving it from a US slave owner (a contrast to the usual vitriol directed to her) to her entreaties to give up slavery.
The Fly, and its Effect upon Mr Bodley is the tale of the discomfiture of that gentleman who is unmanned by the memory of a fly landing on the buttock of a prostitute displaying herself as he decided which orifice he preferred to penetrate, a discomfiture two days later in the same house in Fitzrovia unallayed by the allures of a new girl, whose name is Ping or Pang but whom the establishment calls Lily, whom they are teaching English starting with the essentials (a four letter word of course.) Mr Bodley is prevailed on to sleep things off but is unprepared, “‘I can’t sleep without a nightgown. It’s not natural.’”
In The Apple, Sugar is awoken by an evangelist singing beneath her window. She observes the singer with a child and is enraged by the blow the child receives from her carer after she drops the apple she has been given. This prompts Sugar to rush out to remonstrate but the pair have gone. This along with Sugar’s perusal of the latest Trollope novels and penny dreadfuls makes her resolve to seize her chance of escape should it arise. It is counter-intuitive (brave?) for an author to include the thought that Sugar has about reading as “an admission of defeat …. it shows that you believe other lives are more interesting than yours. All of it is trickery, a Punch and Judy show for the gullible masses.”
William Rackham hopes his Medicine does not contain morphine or cocaine as he ingested other narcotics just an hour before. Sitting at his desk he recalls the way his life was turned upside down by Sugar.
A Mighty Horde of Women in Very Big Hats, Advancing is narrated by an old man in a care home in the nineteen nineties. He was born the day Queen Victoria died and brought to England from his home in Australia in early 1908. At his new school he falls foul of the unwritten codes of English life. “That’s Britain for you … how much unease can be generated out of bloody nothing.” He remembers the day of a huge suffragette march in June 1908. In what might be seen as Faber’s riposte to those who questioned Crimson Petal’s ending. “I do understand how maddening it is to get so far, and not know what happened next.” The narrator’s mother Sophie had once revealed to him she had been taken away from her home by her governess, a Miss Sugar, because she had felt unsafe there. “Life defies our intentions to be rational; it misleads and teases us until we are driven to do foolish things.” He also berates the reader’s tendency to bring sex into everything. Born one day earlier he’d have been a Victorian, “And you know what those Victorians were like.”

After reading the stories in The Apple we know exactly what those Victorians were like.

Pedant’s corner:- “the Virginias” (in 1850? Didn’t Virginia only split into two States once the US Civil War began in 1861?) “‘I had to go see my father’” (go to see,) “outside of” (outside, no ‘of.’) “Go play with” (go and play with,) “came to nought” (naught. The sense is ‘nothing,’ not ‘zero.’ There is a difference.) Some missing commas before direct speech, “prime minister” (Prime Minister.)

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