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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.)

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.)

The Herald’s 100 Best Scottish Fiction Books.

The Herald – formerly The Glasgow Herald – is, along with Edinburgh’s The Scotsman, one of the two Scottish newspapers of note. (Aberdeen’s Press and Journal and Dundee’s Courier could never compare; not least in circulation terms.)

I found the following list of The Herald’s 100 Best Scottish Fiction recommendations just under a year ago at a now defunct webpage http://www.heraldscotland.com/books-and-poetry/your-100-best-scottish-novels where only thirty works were actually given; with a solicitation to readers for further suggestions. Perhaps the page has been removed. It provides some fuel for future reading, though.

Of the 30, I have read 19 (asterisked below – where I also include from the Herald’s webpage the comments which accompanied the nominations, complete with any typographical and other errors.) Where applicable I have also linked to my review on this blog of that particular novel. Those in bold also appear on the list of 100 best Scottish Books.

1 The Death of Men, Allan Massie, 2004*
Anne Marie Fox says: Compelling as suspense and profound as a philosophical exploration of political ideologies and terrorism, ‘post-Christian’ consumer society and family.
2 The White Bird Passes, Jessie Kesson, 1958*
Alistair Campbell, Elgin, concludes: Writing of the highest quality, pared to poetic essence. The unforgettable tale of Janie’s childhood in crowded backstreets richly peopled by characters who live on the margins.
3 The Well at the World’s End, Neil Gunn, 1951*
Janet Feenstra recommends Gunn’s most personal novel: The metaphor of light reflects Gunn’s quest for personal enlightenment. Its optimism has relevance for Scotland now more than ever.
4 The Bridge, Iain Banks, 1986*
Allen Henderson, on Facebook, says: I’m a big Banks fan and for me, The Bridge just pips the Wasp Factory.
5 Cold in the Earth, Aline Templeton, 2005
Julia MacDonald, on Facebook, says: a novel with a clear description of Scottish towns and folk.
6 Fergus Lamont, Robin Jenkins, 1979
Ian Wishart, Edinburgh made this choice.
7 The Antiquary , Sir Walter Scott, 1816
Bryson McNail, Glasgow, writes of the second Scott entry to our list: It has some of the finest descriptive writing ever – the scenes and vistas open before you. It also has a great story line.
8 Joseph Knight, James Robertson, 2004*
Megan Mackie says: It is both a great story and a powerful history lesson rolled into one…a narrative of family relationships, betrayal and social justice told within the context of Scotland’s involvement in the slave trade.
9 Body Politic, Paul Johnston, 1999
Elaine Wishart, Edinburgh, concludes: As well as a great crime novel it paints a very very believable picture of Edinburgh as a city run for tourists – brilliant satire and cracking characters. I read it in one sitting.
10 A Disaffection, James Kelman, 1989*
Mark Barbieri says: Any one of Kelman’s novels could make the top 100 but the story of frustrated school teacher Patrick Doyle is his finest. Sad, honest, funny, vital, incomparable and simply brilliant..
11 The Holy City, Meg Henderson, 1997
Diane Jardine, Glasgow, says: Captured my home town with unnerving accuracy and helped me appreciate its psychology and community just a little bit more.
12 Young Art and Old Hector, Neil M. Gunn, 1942
Myra Davidson, Livingston, concludes: Wonderful depiction of childhood and old age. A Glasgow child, I was evacuated to a croft on Arran and I am still grateful for the introduction to a way of life I would not otherwise have had.
13 Whisky Galore, Compton Mackenzie, 1947
Elizabeth Marshall says: A lovely book that deserves to be included.
14 The House with the Green Shutters, George Douglas Brown, 1901*
Joan Brennan: This has to be among the very top of the finest 100 Scottish novels
15 Consider the Lilies, Iain Crichton Smith, 1968*
Derek McMenamin nominates the writer’s best known novel, about the Highland clearances.
16 Gillespie, J. MacDougall Hay, 1914*
Alan Mackie, Kinghorn says: An epic tale. And just as dark, if not darker than Crime and Punishment as an insight into what it means to be human. Not the happiest book but in terms of style and sheer enjoyment it is right up there with the best for me.
17 The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, James Hogg, 1824*
Kenneth Wright justifies his choice: Theology might not sound like a promising subject for fiction, but Hogg’s critique of the hardshell Calvinism that was Scotland’s religious orthodoxy c.1700 is compellingly expressed as ghost story, psychological thriller, earthy kailyaird comedy and drama of personal morality.
18 One Fine Day in the Middle of the Night, Christopher Brookmyre, 1999*
Vicky Gallagher says: I really enjoyed Christopher Brookmyre’s books, especially this one and A Tale Etched In Blood And Hard Pencil – very funny – very Glaswegian!
19 The Heart of Midlothian, Sir Walter Scott, 1818
Robert Miller is convinced it’s a forgotten masterpiece: This book has a real Scottish heroine and is very accurately based in a interesting time in Scottish history.
20 Greenvoe, George Mackay Brown, 1972*
Siobheann Saville says: Tragic, funny, poetic, descriptive – a book that has it all. Some of the passages read like poetry and have to be re-read several times. The wit and setting of ‘Local Hero’ and the family sagas of ‘Stars look down’ – a personal favourite I can read many times and still be surprised.
21 Sunset Song, Lewis Grassic Gibbon, 1932*
The first – and best – part of the Scots Quair trilogy explores several key issues, such as Scottish identity and land use, war, and the human condition. All bound up in an accessible, moving human tale. An evergreen classic.
22 The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark, 1961*
First published in the New Yorker magazine, the novel’s heroine was memorably brought to life by Maggie Smith, complete with the girls who comprised her “crème de la crème”. It’s a bitingly funny examination of love, relationships, and power.
23 Trainspotting, Irvine Welsh, 1993
The graphic portrayal of a group of junkies made a huge impact, helped by Danny Boyle’s film. Welsh added a sequel, Porno, and a prequel, Skagboys, is due out in 2012.
24 Kidnapped, Robert Louis Stevenson, 1886*
It may have been written as a “boys’ novel”, but the book’s basis in historical reality and its ability to reflect different political viewpoints elevates it to a far higher place, drawing praise from such figures as Henry James and Seamus Heaney.
25 The Thirty-Nine Steps, John Buchan, 1915*
The first of five novels to feature Richard Hannay initially appeared in serialised form in Blackwood’s Magazine. A rollicking good read ¬- if rendered slightly outdated by its kanguage and attitudes – it inspired British soldiers fighting in the WWI trenches, and the various film versions cemented its place in the literary canon.
26 Lanark, Alasdair Gray, 1981*
Gray’s first novel but also his crowning glory: a marvellous mixture of storytelling, illustration, and textual subversion which set the tone for his future work. The author cited Kafka as a major influence, but just about any interpretation of his words is possible…and that’s the fun.
27 Black and Blue, Ian Rankin, 1997
Not everyone will agree with this choice, but Rankin is the acknowledged king of Tartan Noir, and the eighth Inspector Rebus book won him the Crime Writers’ Association’s Macallan Gold Dagger.
28 The Princess and the Goblin, George MacDonald, 1872
This son of Aberdeenshire’s fantasy is regarded as having had a seminal influence on children’s literature, with such luminaries as Mark Twain and GK Chesterton paying homage. Film versions of the book have not been huge successes, but it appears in the 100 Classic Book Collection compiled for the Nintendo DS.
29 Clara, Janice Galloway, 2002
Galloway first came to prominence with The Trick is to Keep Breathing, but Clara, based on the life of the composer’s wife Clara Schumann and which won her the Saltire Book Award, is seen as her finest achievement.
30 The Expedition of Humphry Clinker, Tobias Smollett, 1771*
Born in Renton, West Dunbartonshire, Smollett trained as a surgeon at Glasgow University, but moved to London to find fame as a dramatist. A visit back to Scotland inspired his final novel, a hilarious satire on life and manners of the time. His fiction is thought to have influenced Dickens.

Reading Scotland 2015

A lot of my Scottish reading this year was prompted by the list of 100 best Scottish Books I discovered in February. Those marked below with an asterisk are in that 100 best list. (In the case of Andrew Greig’s Electric Brae I read it before I was aware of the list and for Robert Louis Stevenson his novella was in the book of his shorter fiction that I read.)

Electric Brae by Andrew Greig*
A Sparrow’s Flight by Margaret Elphinstone
The Guinea Stamp by Annie S Swan
The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark
The White Bird Passes by Jessie Kesson*
Attack of the Unsinkable Rubber Ducks by Christopher Brookmyre
Buddha Da by Anne Donovan*
Flemington by Violet Jacob*
Tales From Angus by Violet Jacob
Annals of the Parish by John Galt
The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber
Change and Decay in All Around I See by Allan Massie
The Hangman’s Song by James Oswald
Wish I Was Here by Jackie Kay
The Hope That Kills Us Edited by Adrian Searle
Other stories and other stories by Ali Smith
Young Adam by Alexander Trocchi*
The Gowk Storm by Nancy Brysson Morrison*
No Mean City by H McArthur and H Kingsley Long*
Shorter Scottish Fiction by Robert Louis Stevenson*
The Expedition of Humphry Clinker by Tobias Smollett*
Girl Meets Boy by Ali Smith
Fair Helen by Andrew Greig
The Dear, Green Place by Archie Hind*
Fur Sadie by Archie Hind
Greenvoe by George Mackay Brown*
Stepping Out by Cynthia Rogerson
Open the Door! by Catherine Carswell*
The Silver Darlings by Neil M Gunn*
Scotia Nova edited by Alistair Findlay and Tessa Ransford
After the Dance: selected short stories of Iain Crichton Smith
John Macnab by John Buchan
Another Time, Another Place by Jessie Kesson
Consider the Lilies by Iain Crichton Smith*
The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan*
Poems Iain Banks Ken MacLeod
Mistaken by Annie S Swan
Me and Ma Gal by Des Dillon*
Tea with the Taliban: poems by Owen Gallagher
A Choosing by Liz Lochhead
The Cone Gatherers by Robin Jenkins*
Born Free by Laura Hird*
the first person and other stories by Ali Smith

That makes 42 books in all (plus 2 if the Violet Jacob and Archie Hind count double.) None were non-fiction, 3 were poetry, 2 SF/Fantasy, 19 + (4x½ + 3 doublers) by men, 13 + (3 doublers and 1 triple) by women, 2 had various authors/contributors.

Change and Decay in All Around I See by Allan Massie

Futura, 1986, 160 p

Change and Decay in All Around I See cover

Massie is described in the blurb on the back of this edition as “Perhaps the finest of living Scottish novelists.” That reputation was built up in subsequent books. However, this, his first novel, originally published in 1978, entirely fails to justify that encomium.

Former gaolbird Anthony Atwater is seeking to capitalise on an inheritance but since he is resident in the Savoy Turkish Baths “it’s convenient and they ask no questions” and has little by way of identification he is finding that difficult. He comes into the orbit of Colonel Beasley whose wife and daughter (the lubricious Polly) are both having an affair with the more than seedy Horridge, a man whose main recommendation, according to Polly, is that he’s “good in bed.” But she wonders if that’s enough.

Eventually she decides it’s not and takes up with Atwater. In the meantime the book rather meanders between Atwater’s acquaintances. None of the characters are really striking and they fail to engage empathy.

Signs of the times this was written in abound. The colonel refers to “The Negro” (who is Dr Seth Ngunga) and the words “poofs” and “niggers” appear in the dialogue of a policeman.

I read this mainly for completeness. Massie is one of the best Scottish writers of the last fifty years. Look elsewhere for evidence of that though.

Pedant’s corner – despite this being a reprint:- goloshes (galoshes,) decided the safest role was merely nodder (nodding?) burk (berk,) submensally, (?) “you’ve taking your time” (you’re,) Tippi Hendren (Tippi Hedren,) burglarised (the burglary may have been in New York but still…)

Mr Mee by Andrew Crumey

Picador, 2000, 344 p.

Mr Mee cover

Mr Mee bears several Crumey hallmarks; explanations of concepts from Physics (and, in this case, probability) in literary form, characters from the 18th century, ruminations on literature and philosophy. The narrative is triple stranded: that of Mr Mee himself, in the form of the eighty six year old’s letters to an old friend; the adventures of two Frenchmen, “the Gossips,” Ferrand and Minard, who meet Jean-Jacques Rousseau and precipitate his flight from France; and the meanderings of academic Dr Petrie whose main research interest is those same two Frenchmen. The epilogue introduces a fourth narrator who once installed a Théâtrophone in the bedridden Marcel Proust’s apartment. It casts further light on the preceding stories and has the potential to alter the reader’s perceptions of them, though is perhaps a little too eager to drop in literary allusions.

The unworldly Mr Mee, stuck in his ways and almost drowning in a sea of books, is prompted by his housekeeper, Mrs B, to discover that the worlds of literature and philosophy are available through the less space consuming medium of the PC and the internet. What he finds there intrigues him – and shocks Mrs B into leaving abruptly. His old fashioned attitudes to modern life and his misunderstandings are a source of light humour (“those nice folk at Dixons,” the joys of live video links – a bus stop in Aberdeen and a naked girl reading a book which is of course Dr Petrie’s on Ferrand and Minard, the “sensational and sentimental” fare that passes for Scottish literature in a modern bookshop) unusual in Crumey’s work. His encounter with practical and capable life scientist student Catriona leads the unmarried (and sexual ingénu) Mr Mee to new experiences.

Ferrand and Minard are copyists, whose latest project regarding a new understanding of how the world works is stolen from their flat and whose downstairs neighbour has been murdered. Fearing the blame for the killing they flee to Montmorency, come under the protection of a Bishop Bertier and end up living next door to Rousseau who is said to think the world would be a much better place without books.

Dr Petrie has been captivated by the sexual possibilities involved in his tutoring of a mature (twenty four year old) student called Louisa and imagines his disease symptoms are a reflection of his attraction to her. He believes Ferrand and Minard to have been invented by Rousseau whose Confessions he says are as much a fiction as was the novel Émile.

The text contains a lot of literary reference; not just to Rousseau and Proust but to mechanical poetry and the pitfalls of attributing what happens in a novel to autobiography, (“a person called ‘I’ who is not necessarily oneself.”) Other aperçus include, “the moment in which we live, like the self we inhabit, is the one we are least equipped to understand,” “when faced with an unfamiliar situation, we play the part as best we can; and our scripts come to us from many places,” the contention that “all men write for sex,” and the observation that “out of character” simply means unexpectedly. (Compare Allan Massie.)

Mr Mee is a kind of companion piece to D’Alembert’s Principle; some of that books preoccupations reappear – we hear again of D’Alembert and Diderot and their Encyclopédie – and there is a sly reference to the contents of Crumey’s earlier book Pƒitz. Dr Petrie tells Louisa that “Rousseau’s novel, like Proust’s, is intimately concerned with the nature of writing.” So, too, is Crumey’s, an engagement with what a novel is, or can be, the uses to which fiction can be put and an examination of the ways in which texts can be interpreted. While the book can be read solely for the stories contained within it these other aspects for me add value, elevate it beyond the level of just a novel but, curiously in such a well-crafted literary piece of work, we twice had “chord” for “cord,” even if I was also grateful to be introduced to the useful word “anacoluthon” (lack of syntactical agreement of the latter part of a sentence with the former.)

I had some misgivings about the way Mr Mee’s relationship with Catriona develops. She is depicted as being in control throughout (indeed she is by far the more knowing of the two, about modern life as well as in a sexual sense) but still. However, yet again Crumey has written an intriguing novel, well worth anyone’s attention.

Surviving by Allan Massie

Vagabond Voices, 2009, 208p.

Surviving cover

This is the second book I’ve read this year eligible for the Read Scotland 2014 Challenge and the second not set in Scotland. The author has a large back catalogue some of them set in Scotland in various historical eras up to the present but he has also delved into the lives of ex-Nazis in South America, the legacy of the Vichy regime and later twentieth century Italian politics in addition to writing a series of very good novels on the lives of Roman Emperors.

Surviving takes place in modern(ish) Rome. It is undated but the currency being used is the lira which would set it before Italy adopted the Euro in 2002. The story unfolds over fifty short chapters, though since each is indicated by a Roman numeral in bold that should be L chapters.

A group of ex-pat Britons is just about surviving being alcoholics – with a few lapses – via their attendance at AA meetings. A new member, writer Tom Durward, – whose surname surely signals a Walter Scott connection – has guilty feelings due to his orphaned nephew, Jamie (entrusted to his care,) having drowned himself at boarding school years ago. Stephen Mallany spectacularly drops off the wagon just after the meeting where Durward introduces himself.

The web of relationships becomes further disturbed when Gary Kelly, a man acquitted of murder back in Britain, is taken into her home by Kate Sturzo. The book takes a strange turn indeed when the barrister who defended him, Reynard Yallett, also arrives in Rome. The consequences involve murder but the novel reads nothing like a detective story.

There are multifarous characters, perhaps too many. That there should be such neat connections between some of them stretches believability a bit but Massie’s writing is smooth and accomplished even if he puts into the mouth of one of them the sentence, “We make for ourselves impressions of people and if they act in a way that doesn’t fit that impression we say they’re acting out of character as if they were actors condemned to be typecast,” which is a wonderful get out of jail free card for any author to trot out. He also gives us a piece of metafictional trickery towards the end as Durward muses about writing the whole story up as a novel.

What kind of novel Surviving is, is not easy to pigeonhole. It’s worth a look though.

Projected New Year Reading

Happy New Year everyone.

As I mentioned before the good lady suggested I should take part in her blog friend Peggy Ann’s Read Scotland Challenge. This post is about what I intend to read. (Whether I will actually get around to it all is another matter. There is the small matter of a review for Interzone to be got out of the way as a first priority and other reading to be done.)

When it came up I looked on this project partly as a chance to catch up on Scottish classics I have so far missed. In the frame then is Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s A Scots Quair trilogy – I have read most of his œuvre but not this, his most well-known work. The televison series made of it in the 1970s has been in my memory for a long time, though. I also have his Persian Dawns, Egyptian Nights in my tbr pile and a collection of shorter pieces under the title Smeddum many of which I have already read. I have not managed to source his The Calends of Cairo and doubtless if I did it would be horribly expensive.

Another Scottish classic I haven’t read is J MacDougall Hay’s Gillespie, which lies on my desk as I write this but, according to Alasdair Gray, has the “worst first chapter that ever introduced a novel worth reading.” I consider myself warned.

If I can get hold of a copy then John Galt’s The Member and the Radical will go on the list.

As far as modern stuff is concerned there are multiple novels by Christopher Brookmyre and Allan Massie on my shelves and as yet unread, two by Alan Warner, Andrew Crumey’s Mr Mee and James Robertson’s latest The Professor of Truth.

Plenty to be going on with.

We’ll see how it goes.

Charlemagne and Roland by Allan Massie

Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2007, 232 p.

The last in Massie’s Dark Ages trilogy, this is mainly the life story of Roland, nephew of Charlemagne. As in previous instalments we have the interjections and admonitions of the putative narrator, Michael Scott, to his princely charge (the later Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II.) Much less here is made of Scott’s upbringing in the Scottish Border country though there are “editorial” footnotes from Massie himself noting similarities between incidents in Michael Scott’s tale and those of his later compatriot and surnamesake Sir Walter. (The trilogy is meant to be a “found” manuscript which “Massie” has translated from Latin.) Still present, too, are “Scott”’s digressions – at one point a character visits Byzantium, others travel as far as Ethiopia (to collect Roland’s lost wits!) before returning to the German wood where they left him – but the narrative thrust doesn’t falter. The machinations and instabilities of a Dark Ages court are well illustrated.

Since there are precious few historical sources to rely on a novelist has pretty much free reign in describing the times in which the book is set. It will not have been exactly like this but in Charlemagne and Roland Massie has produced as convincing an account as we are likely to get.

Arthur The King by Allan Massie

A Romance. Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2003, 292 p.

A novel about King Arthur? What new is there to be said?
Well, Massie’s approach is different. This is the second part of his Dark Ages trilogy as told by Michael Scott (known as the wizard) to his pupil, the Hohenstaufen Prince who would become The Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II.

In Arthur the King the focus is not so much on the legend we all think we know as on Arthur the man, a very human creature, from his humble upbringing, through his kingship to his gritty death. The effect is to demystify, to demythologise, to render Arthur into history. Michael Scott has his own reasons for this, to educate the prince, to remind him of a monarch’€™s duty to maintain peace and justice, to underline the burden of kingship but it also serves to emphasise the Hohenstaufen line’s links back to the Roman Empire. It’€™s a nice piece of ventriloquism by Massie and allows the use of wonderful Scottish words like howdumdeid.

In addition he has Scott locate Camelot in Scott’s boyhood environment – the Scottish border country – and mentions, among others, the legend of Arthur still residing in a hollow under the Eildon Hills. There are of course many parts of Great Britain which claim Arthur as their own. Indeed a cave by the Clyde shore at the Havoc in Dumbarton was/is known as Merlin’€™s Cave (though others have it as Bruce’s cave, such is legend.)

In the narrative the point is made that most of the tales of Arthur are actually those of the Knights of the Round Table. Here, there are some digressions of that sort but they are short and we are never away from Arthur for long.

Characters who might have seemed important, like Merlin and Lancelot, are bit parts; even Morgan Le Fay isn’€™t Arthur’€™s main antagonist. Merlin, though an instigator of the sequence of events which lead to the complications inherent in the tale, is disappeared offstage about halfway through.

The main problem with all this is the narrative style. Massie, as Scott, digresses frequently and irritatingly, leading to a certain turgidity in the delivery. I remember this trait as being worse, though, in the first book of The Dark Ages, The Evening of the World, which I read before I started blogging. So much so in fact that I left off reading this one for years.

It probably won’€™t be so long, I suspect, till I undertake the last in this series, Charlemagne and Roland.

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