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Bookshelf Travelling for Insane Times – Andrew Crumey

Again the books for Judith’s Bookshelf Travelling meme now overseen by Katrina are on my shelf of Scottish books.

Eight idiosyncratic novels by Andrew Crumey.

Books by Andrew Crumey

I have read all of these since I started my blog and hence reviewed them all over the years. You’ll find them listed below in order of reading, with links to the reviews.

Though not all of his fiction deals with the subject, his background in theoretical physics colours some of the books. One of his accomplishments is that he has managed to illustrate quantum mechanical concepts in fictional form – and without sacrificing comprehensibility. His interest in historical figures and mathematics also permeates his work and he is aware, too, of the hinterland of Scottish literature. There’s not a dud here.

Mobius Dick
Sputnik Caledonia
Music, In a Foreign Language
PfITZ
D’Alembert’s Principle
Mr Mee
The Secret Knowledge
The Great Chain of Unbeing

The Sealwoman’s Gift by Sally Magnusson

Two Roads, 2018, 368 p, plus i p A Note about Icelandic, iv p List of Characters, i p Maps and i p Contents.

 The Sealwoman’s Gift  cover

The author is well-known (in Scotland) as a television newsreader and possibly more widely as a presenter of Songs of Praise. (Her father Magnus also made a career in television – he was the questioner on the original Mastermind – and translated various works from Icelandic to English; see The Fish Can Sing.) In this book Magnusson draws on her Icelandic heritage to tell the tale of a woman, Ásta Thorsteinsdóttir, caught up in a traumatic incident of Icelandic history, the abduction and enslavement of hundreds of Icelanders by Barbary corsairs in the mid-1600s.

The novel begins on the corsair ship taking the pregnant Ásta and the rest of her kidnapped family to Algiers. Despite her pregnancy, her defiance – in contrast to the more accommodating attitude of her husband Ólafur, a priest in the staunch Icelandic Protestant mould but who wishes to converse with his captors – fatefully takes the eye of the ship’s captain, Wahid Fleming, a man of Dutch origin. On board, and just before she gives birth she receives a cryptic piece of advice, the gift of the title, from the dying Oddrún, who had long claimed to be a sealwoman who once took off her skin to bask in the midnight sun but found it stolen when it was time to return to the sea so had to make a life for herself as an Icelander.

In Algiers Fleming sells Ásta and her family to Ali Pitterling Cilleby, with the suggestion of petitioning the King of Denmark (Iceland’s ruler at the time) for their ransom. Cilleby’s wife had hoped for a seamstress, in which regard Ásta is a disappointment. Cilleby sends Ólafur on the long journey to Copenhagen with the ransom demand, which the King refuses. Once back on Iceland, Ólafur, with the local bishop’s encouragement, sets about raising the money by community effort, via the selling of knitted socks etc.

The Icelanders in Algiers make their own accommodations with their new life. Some convert to Islam in order to make their way, others remain true to their own traditions. Even as she realises that this society, with its sights, sounds, smells, opulence and food abundance so in contrast to the harsh realities of life in Iceland, is in many ways much more civilised than her own, Ásta is anguished when her daughter, brought up among the strange foreign customs, becomes more at home with them than with her mother’s.

The ransom not forthcoming, Cilleby’s attention falls on Ásta. Inviting her to his chamber one night, he is astounded by her refusal to lie with him, which by the laws of his state he may. Her understanding, she tells him, was that she was not bought as a concubine. Moreover, she is married so cannot take another man for herself. This clash of customs and the building of the relationship between them forms the majority of the book’s largest section. Cilleby’s interest in her becomes intellectual as well as sexual as she relates the details of Icelandic sagas, in which he manages to find material to contradict her abomination of slavery. It is here that the book explicitly riffs on the tales of the Thousand and One Nights (not that Ásta is in any danger of execution, as Scheherazade was.) Yet there cannot be a meeting of minds. Both are too steeped in their respective values.

Via a Dutch intermediary, the ransom eventually arrives – for all the Icelanders, not all of whom wish to return. Cilleby offers Ásta the choice, he will turn down the money if she wishes to stay. Though torn between her children and her husband, duty wins out. Ásta’s equally long return to Iceland, via Denmark, allows Magnusson to explore other instances of human frailty and the conflict between religion and emotion. Back in Iceland Ásta fails to recognise the old man her husband has become and has to come to terms with how her experiences have changed her.

This novel is many-layered; it is among other things a story about stories, about love and loss, the ties that bind, and the barriers between cultures. Magnusson’s writing is assured and even her minor characters have depth. This novel is very good indeed.

Pedant’s corner:- span (x 2, spun,) focussed (focused,) maws (x 2, a maw is a stomach, not a mouth,) smoothes (smooths.)

Bookshelf Travelling for Insane Times – Alasdair Gray

This week’s books for Judith’s meme now overseen by Katrina are on my shelf of Scottish books.

Books by Alasdair Gray

This illustrates my idiosyncratic filing system. Within an author’s books, first come novels in order of publication,* then collections of short stories,** then anthologies edited (if any: in this case none,) then collaborations, finally non-fiction. But here we have two books of plays – one a verse comedy – before the non-fiction Independence.

Two further books, A Short Survey of Classic Scottish Writing and A Life in Pictures are of odd sizes and housed elsewhere as is the as-yet unread by me Old Negatives 4 verse sequences and The Book of Prefaces.

*See here for my review of Old Men in Love.

**I reviewed one of these here.

Straw in the Wind by James Wilson

Hutchinson, 1960, 205 p

  Straw in the Wind cover

John Gavin was just too late to be involved in the Great War. He has nevertheless managed to learn to fly and after a period barnstorming in the US takes up a post in South America in a nascent air postal service. This book is very good indeed on the practicalities of early aviation, but especially its drawbacks. The rigours and contingencies of operating such a service in a potentially unstable country are also a major consideration. It is James’s relationships with his employer, the locals, his fellow pilots and their wives, which provide much of the substance here though. The characters, even those met briefly, ring true to life.

There are said to be only seven plots in literature. It would not be too much of a spoiler to say that the one deployed here is, “the getting of wisdom.” There is an element too of the Scottish novel’s penchant to lament time past, the something lost, as Gavin realises that the (not quite) carefree ‘knights of the air’ era is coming to an end. “For me, the biplane was part of the dream. It belonged with the free-roaming life of the barnstormer, and, when it went, that free, vagabond life went with it,” and later, “I had taken part in the end of an era, and in that I felt privileged as a man would feel privileged to have sailed in the last of the windjammers. But there was no going back. The freebooting days were gone for ever.”

There is too a recognition, in the form of a missionary storekeeper named Meikle, that the indigenous peoples will not be well-served by civilisation being brought to them.

Wilson could certainly write. I reviewed his Interrupted Journey here. It is a pity that he only ever published two novels. I would like to have read more.

Pedant’s corner:- Guinivere (Guinevere,) a missing quotation mark at the end of a piece of direct speech (x 2.)

Aiding and Abetting by Muriel Spark

Penguin, 2001, 216 p

Aiding and Abetting cover

Hildegard Wolf is a psychiatrist in Paris. She has not one, but two clients who claim to be the fugitive Lord Lucan. One gives his name as Robert Walker, the other is known as Lucky. Between them though they have plotted to blackmail Wolf as in a former life she was the fake stigmatic Beate Pappenheim, still wanted for fraud. To avoid this she disappears herself, not even telling her lover Jean-Pierre Roget, where she has gone.

Spark leavens this pretty slim stuff with relatings of the details of Lucan’s murder of his child’s nanny and assault on his wife, his penchant for salmon and lamb chops (which the police could use to apprehend him if they ever got near,) mentions of his aiding and abetting by his friends, his frequent resorts to them for money. There is also a frankly unbelievable liaison between Lacey Twickenham, daughter of one of Lucan’s acquaintances and widower Joseph Murray, yet another who had known the earl, and accounts of their serial near-misses in confronting Lucky.

Spareness can be a virtue but here Spark is taking it to extremes. As in her later The Finishing School, she has given us a sketch for a novel rather than a rounded whole. I am really struggling to see why people hold her writing in high regard.

Pedant’s corner:- imposters (I prefer the spelling impostor,) “a nail-wound on each hand and foot, and a sword wound in the side” (this is a commonly held perception, but crucifixions were carried out by nailing the wrists and ankles, not the hands and feet. And wasn’t it a spear wound in the side?) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech. “One way and another” (One way or another is the usual – and more sensible – expression.) “Could that young woman in the department store in Oxford Street be really Ursula?” (What kind of syntax is this? ‘Could that young woman in the department store in Oxford Street really be Ursula?’ is the more natural way to say this.)

Bookshelf Travelling for Insane times – A Plethora of Banks

This week’s entry for Judith, Reader in the Wilderness‘s meme now being run by Katrina at Pining for the West.

These are all on the top shelf of my “Scottish” bookcase and comprise all of Iain Banks’s non-SF fiction works plus his non-fiction wander round the world of Scotch whisky, Raw Spirit.

Books by Iain Banks

Lying around in a file somewhere I’ve got reviews of these that (except for the last four) haven’t been put on here. They were in preparation for a piece giving an overview of Banks’s work in a book that never saw fruition.

Maybe I’ll post them sometime.

The Brownie of Bodsbeck by James Hogg

Edited by Douglas S Mack, Scottish Academic Press, 1976, 170 p; plus i p Acknowledgements, xi p Introduction, viii p Notes on the Text, x p Appendices, i p Select Bibliography, xvi p Explanatory and Textual Notes and xvii p Glossary. First published 1818.

 The Brownie of Bodsbeck  cover

The novel is set in Hogg’s country of southwest Scotland, the Dumfries and Galloway of Covenanting times, some years after the Battle of Bothwell Bridge. The defeated Covenanters were forced to scatter and hide, holding their prayer meetings in conventicles and taking cover where they might, in danger of being chased down by Government trooops. At times the air was filled with the eery sound of their singing as if some unnatural creature were haunting the hills.

Despite not being of their persuasion and of the concomitant danger of arrest and execution, Walter Laidlaw, a farmer at Chapelhope, takes to giving some of the fugitives succour and shelter. As a result of her ministrations in this regard his daughter Katharine is in danger of being thought – even by her mother – a witch, and of consorting with the Brownie of Bodsbeck, a deformed supernatural creature believed to haunt Chapelhope. In the glossary a brownie is defined as a “benevolent household sprite, usually shaggy and of peculiar shape, who haunted houses, particularly farmhouses, and, if the servants treated him well, performed many tasks of drudgery for them while they were asleep.” (I mentioned this definition to the good lady who immediately reflected on how this assignation of drudgery to the name conformed with the junior arm of the Girl Guides.) The brownie is alternatively described as a goblin or evil spirit.

The plot gears up when soldiers under the commend of John Graham of Claverhouse, Viscount (“Bonnie”) Dundee, come to the area. Laidlaw is arrested, barely escapes being shot and is taken to Edinburgh for trial. In the meantime a local minister convinces Katharine’s mother to allow him to spend the night with the girl in the farm’s outshot to exorcise the evil she is thought to embody and not to open the door no matter what she might hear. (The only evil truly at hand is the minister’s intention of forcing himself on Katharine.) Katharine persuades him to hold off for a few hours and is rescued by apparitions coming out of the dark.

The behaviour and attitude of Claverhouse as shown here place him in a harsh, unforgiving light, a point over which he clashed with Walter Scott, but are in accord with Hogg’s memories of the stories told to him in his youth about the time.

The text is in the main in English but Hogg’s characters speak broad Scots, laden with the dialect of that area of the Borders. A difficulty in comprehension some may find is that a Highland sergeant’s soft sibilants are represented as in “pe” (for “be,”) “poy” (for “boy”) and “petween” (for “between”) plus the typical aspirations of his vowels are delightfully captured as in “couhnsel” for “counsel” and “tisgrhace” for disgrace.

The glossary is worth perusing on its own. Old Scots was a language very much concerned with agriculture and the land. I had heard of the dog breed whose name is derived from the fictional character in Scott’s Guy Mannering but hadn’t realised before reading it here that a dinmont is a castrated ram between the first and second shearing. (I later found a similar definition – but without the castrated bit – in my Chambers’ Dictionary.)

Hogg’s greatest literary accomplishment was The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, which is perhaps the finest ever Scottish novel, the progenitor of so many since. It would be hard for this book – any book – to hold a candle to that.

However, The Brownie of Bodsbeck is entertaining enough – one of those Scots novels that illuminate the past – and refreshing in that it does not focus on the usual suspect of Jacobitism. At times, though, it feels like two stories jammed together. Laidlaw’s tribulations are distinct from those of Katharine and the Brownie and the two don’t really mesh.

Pedant’s corner:- Clavers’ (Clavers’s,) wofully (old spelling but later rendered as woefully,) “the family were crowded round” (the family was.) In the glossary: an opened parenthesis never closed.

Queens’ Play by Dorothy Dunnett

Vintage, 1997, 436 p, plus i p Foreword by the Author, ip Contents, iv p list of Characters, ii p map of France.

 Queens’ Play cover

This is the second in the author’s “legendary” (according to the cover) Lymond Chronicles, of which I read the first, The Game of Kings, in 2017. In this instalment our hero is engaged by Mary of Guise to travel incognito to the court of Henri II of France – where her seven-year-old daughter Mary, Queen of Scots, is being brought up and educated to be a wife for the Dauphin (and hence to unite the crowns of France, Scotland – and, in the fullness of time Ireland) – in order to keep her informed of any intrigue she might otherwise miss. Lymond travels disguised as Thady Boy Ballagh, ollave (a kind of high-grade factotum of learning, “professor, singer, poet, all in the one”) to Irishman, Phelim O’LiamRoe, Prince of Barrow and lord of the Slieve Bloom.

From the outset things do not go smoothly, the ship they are sailing in is rammed – apparently by accident but in reality not so – just before landfall. Someone has mistaken O’Liam Roe for Lymond and trying to kill him. O’LiamRoe’s first meeting with Henri is also blighted by him being given the misinformation he is actually to meet a look-alike.

As Thady Boy, Lymond makes his impression on the court; not least in a roof-running race similar to parkour (but obviously centuries before that became a well-known thing.) There is as much of the said intrigue – not to mention skulduggery – as you could wish, with numerous attempts on the young Queen Mary’s life thwarted in various ways. Lymond’s clever-dickery is not quite as to the fore as in The Game of Kings but Dunnett’s fondness for unusual words – habromaniac, hispid, branle, cangs, gregale – is again in evidence.

It’s all readable enough but at times a little too convoluted.

Pedant’s corner:- focussed (focused,) hiccough (several times. That spelling is a misattribution; the word is spelled hiccup,) Callimachus’ (Callimachus’s,) unfocussed (x 3, unfocused,) O’Li mRoe (O’LiamRoe,) StAndre (St André,) span (spun, used later,) “hearking back” (harking,) a comma at the end of a piece of direct speech, Empedocles’ (Empedocles’s,) paradisaical, (paradisiacal?) serendade (serenade?) sunk (sank,) “that closed the back of this throat” (of his throat,) appalls (appals,) shrunk (shrank,) “‘Thinking death the only division. I could not imagine …. ever so insulting you’” (no full stop after division.) “She studdied him” (studied,) “knees akimbo” (it is very difficult indeed to rest a leg upon its own hip, never mind both of them. Okay, I know people use it to mean limbs splayed out but bent inward,) “black cloth of gold” (if it’s cloth of gold it can’t be black,) “no on touched him” (no one, better still, no-one.)

Dark Summer in Bordeaux by Allan Massie

Quartet, 2012, 244 p.

 Dark Summer in Bordeaux  cover

This is the second of Massie’s Bordeaux quartet, set in that city during World War 2. The first, Death in Bordeaux, I reviewed here.

It is now 1941. Partly due to the compromising deal he had made in Vichy in the previous book Police Superintendent Jean Lannes’s son Dominique has returned from a POW camp in Germany, to his mother’s intense relief. However, his daughter Clothilde is still enamoured of the German billeted in the flat above and his son Alain is wondering how best to resist the occupation. Dominique is of the opposite persuasion, swayed by the thinking of Vichyites. Lannes’s wife Marguerite has thoughts only on how to protect all her family.

The investigative element of the book arises when Professor Aristide Labiche, a communist, is found in a bush, murdered. This is little more than a perfunctory nod to the norms of the crime genre. The book’s focus is on the wider situation, the compromises and difficulties inherent in occupation, the dangers of trying to be a good man (Lannes is a man, the women here don’t have much agency) in bad times. Labiche’s murder, like the one in Death in Bordeaux, is resolved but again without any prospect of the culprit being held to account, though in this case not for political reasons.

Massie invokes the sense of claustrophobia of life in such times and circumstances well and as in the earlier book the text is coloured by the attitudes of many of the French locals to Jews. Mentions of the Institut des Questions Juives add to the sense of foreboding.

Leutnant Schussmann’s attraction to Alain’s homosexual (and Jewish) friend Léon leads to a member of the French security services calling himself Félix, forcing him into a plot to blackmail the German, who opts for the only honourable way out for him and brings the anger of the occupying force down on Lannes’s department.

Meanwhile Alain gets himself into a group calling themselves ‘The Musketeers’ (which is fly-posting drawings of the Cross of Lorraine around the city and talking of joining De Gaulle in the UK) and Clothilde forgets her German friend when she forms an attachment to a French boy whom Lannes knows is unsuitable.

Massie’s Scottishness shows in the use of the – admittedly apposite – Scots term ‘thrawn,’ pretending a dialect word from the Landes has that meaning.

In all though, Massie’s pudding here is over-egged. I know a novel cannot encompass the whole world and has to represent it in microcosm but too many of the characters in Dark Summer in Bordeaux have too many connections with each other. In particular the possibility revealed here that Lannes’s father was not the man in whose home he was brought up but instead a prominent character from Death in Bordeaux, stretches credulity too far. As too does the author’s knowledge of the actual history and eventual outcome, where it is allowed to bleed into interactions between characters. At the book’s end there is the faint hope that the launch of Operation Barbarossa means the Wehrmacht may have bitten off more than it can chew in Russia.

This is all cleverly plotted but more than a touch involuted. As a portrait of those times in that place though, it’s admirable.

Pedant’s corner:- Lannnes’ (many instances, Lannes’s,) “‘au voir‘” (that last single quote mark is reversed: ‘au voir’,) Lanes (Lannes,) Aramis’ (Aramis’s,) Mirian (Miriam,) Dumas’ (Dumas has a silent ‘s’ at the end, its possessive therefore demands the apostrophe, Dumas’s; without it there’s no indication that the possessive applies,) a capital letter after a comma, ‘onto this lap’ (his lap,) litle (little,) “eying up” (eyeing up,) Jules’ (as for Dumas’ above; hence, Jules’s,) agaist (against.)

Scruffians! by Hal Duncan

Stories of Better Sodomites. Lethe Press, 2014, 205 p.

 Scruffians! cover

Unlike normal folk (groanhuffs,) Scruffians are mis-shapes and misfits – Orphans, foundlings, latch-key kids; Urchins, changelings, live-by-wits; Rascals, scallywags, ruffians, scamps; Scoundrels, hellions, – in their chant that last word is followed by, Scruffians STAMP. The Stamp is how they came to be fixed as Scruffians, an excruciating procedure which stops any growth in age from that time on and embeds all their existing characteristics. Only nicks to the Stamp mark on their chests will allow alteration thereafter. Their lore is expressed by tales known as fabbles (an ideal coinage,) some of which appear here as if addressed to potential or newly-Stamped Scruffians. Not all of the stories here are of Scruffians but each section within one that is has a title (or number, depending on the story) and each paragraph a first line in bold type. All are excellent reading.
In How a Scruffian Gets Their Story a new recruit falls in with the Scruffians.
How a Scruffian Gets Their Name tells of how and why Slickspit Hamshankery got that title.
The Behold of the Eye is where humans store all the things they prize most highly. What catches their eye is stored by the eye – and each is a home to a faery. The story relates the experiences of newly born faery Flashjack as he seeks his Beholder (to be found by Toby Raymond Hunter’s Behold) and follows Toby’s life as he comes to terms with himself and his sexuality.
Scruffian’s Stamp is the story of Orphan, the first Scruffian, and how groanhuffs came to invent the Stamp without realising it would Fix Scruffians for good.
An Alfabetcha of Scruffian Names describes the characteristics of twenty-six Scruffians.
Jack Scallywag expands on the one paragraph about the Scruffian Knight in the Alphabetcha, how said Jack aspired to knighthood and came to it as others did, (by stealing it more or less,) how he set off on his mission to slay the dragon only to find out who the real dragons are.
The Disappearance of James H riffs extensively but explicitly on Peter Pan – a shadow, a crocodile tear, “‘I’m not a…’ ‘Fairy?,’ ‘Every time you say that, I whisper, a little part of you will die,’” – in its tale of the titular disappearance.
The Island of the Pirate Gods is another swashbuckling Pannish adventure (with added language) wherein the twin lovers Matelotage and Mutiny are the background to a story of The People’s Independent Republic of Arse, Cock and bloody Yo-ho-bloody-ho, ie PIRACY.
Very well constructed and set against the background of the playing of a hand in a Texas Hold ‘Em game The Angel of the Gamblers is a meeting with the devil type of story except it’s not the devil who demanded a soul, it was the eponymous angel.
The Shoulder of Pelops features figures from Ancient Greek myth and legend in a story about signs, meanings and the difference between words and the things they name.
Bizarre Cubiques is a history – and critique – of an alternative world art movement, the creation of artists Bricasso and Paque. The narrator has made his way from home in New Amsterdam in Amorica to Pharis via Caerlundein, Felixstoff and Diephe.
The worlds of superhero comics are the inspiration for The Origin of the Fiend, a metafiction where differing origin stories for different supercharacters impinge on the consciousness of a young lad ‘sending his mind back and forth along his own timestream,’ in a mundane world where no superhero can stop his brother dying whether that be in France or Korea or Vietnam or Iraq.
Sons of the Law is a Western story with a framing device positing it as a manuscript handed down through a family. It transcends all the Western clichés while at the same time deploying them – the saloon, the hunter, the killer, the slave (whose name, Abraham, and experience embed a Biblical reference,) the bargirl, the gambler, the wrangler, the drifter, in a tale of revenge and implied poetic justice.
Sic Him, Hellhound! Kill! Kill! ticks off two fantasy tropes in one swoop with a story of a boy and his lover (a werewolf) hunting vampires.
Oneirica melds many myths and legends into one tale as it describes a trip by various characters to find a stone chest containing mythological objects.
Inventive, delightful stuff.

Pedant’s corner:- Plasticene (Plasticine,) “fifth formers” (yet the narrator is Scottish, where the expression is ‘fifth years’. Perhaps not in private schools though where the scene was set.) “Joey sees him close his eyes, puts the barrel to his own chest and pull the trigger” (put the barrel,) rigourous (rigorous,) “that’s bound to sparks some stares” (to spark,) “and the hoi polloi” (hoi means ‘the’, so it should really be ‘and hoi polloi.) “None of them are aware” (None of them is aware.) “None of them know what’s in the briefcase” (None of them knows.)

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