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According to Queeney by Beryl Bainbridge

Little, Brown, 2001, 250 p

 According to Queeney cover

Bainbridge is – or was – one of the stalwarts of English Fiction, but I had not read anything from her œuvre before this book. I gather her output is varied though, so I shall not take this as representative.

According to Queeney is topped and tailed by a Prologue and Epilogue describing respectively Samuel Johnson’s body’s removal from the house in which he died and his funeral, the sections in between being an account of his relationship with the Thrale family, one of whose daughters (given name, Harriet, like her mother) is the Queeney of the title.

The individual chapters deal with phases of Johnson’s life from a debilitating illness in 1765 to his eventual fading away and each is appended by a letter from the grown-up Queeney to Miss Laetitia Hawkins of Sion Row Tottenham, who is composing her memoirs which feature Johnson heavily, or, once, to novelist Fanny Burney (by now Madame D’Arblay) in Paris. Queeney’s mother and Johnson had both championed Burney’s writing. These letters provide Queeney’s own perspective on the events. (In one of them, incidentally, she mentions recently staying in Dumbartonshire.)

Johnson is irascible, opinionated and enamoured of Mrs Thrale, whose life is otherwise a constant round of pregnancies and dead children. Since this is an illustration of a more private part of Johnson’s life his biographer James Boswell makes only fleeting appearances in the book. We are also granted glimpses of the actor David Garrick.

Bainbridge’s prose is finely written but unfortunately too much of the proceedings are told, rather than shown. As a result the reader does not feel the emotions implied.

Pedant’s corner:- “was sat” (was seated, or, was sitting,) another “sat” (where ‘sitting’ would have been more appropriate,) “she was of no more interest to him that the stone urns set at frequent intervals along the way” (than the stone urns,) “nought but darkness lay ahead” (nought is the number, zero; ‘naught but darkness’.)

Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin

The story of Franz Biberkopf, Continuum, 2004, 381 p, plus ii p Foreword by Alexander Stephan and i p Contents. Translated from the German, Berlin Alexanderplatz, by Eugene Jolas

 Berlin Alexanderplatz  cover

Franz Biberkopf has just been released from Tegel jail after serving four years for the killing (manslaughter) of his partner Ida. This far from straightforwardly told novel tells his story – in nine books – over the next few years at the back end of the 1920s. These were of course troubled political times in Germany and some conversations involve “the Reds” and mention of swastikas but for the most part the political situation is kept in the background. The focus is on Biberkopf and his milieu, his acquaintance (it would not be accurate to describe him as a friend) Reinhold, their associations with various women and the demi-monde in general.

At first Biberkopf is determined to go straight and he manages to gain a living selling newspapers an din the meanwhile having relationships with several women (who tend to be Reinhold’s cast-offs.) Franz is settled with Meize, though, when his life unravels once more as he is hoodwinked into acting as lookout on a burglary. His irritation leads to Reinhold throwing him out of the getaway car into the gutter. His arm is damaged by a succeeding vehicle and he loses it.

The text is overloaded with repetition of phrases such as, “truly, ruly, roo,” “There is a mower: Death yclept,” “tararara taraboomdeay” and “drrumm, brrumm, drrumm.” There are, too, many digressions via Bible quotations, a multiplicity of rhymes, asides on how the novel is progressing, and relatings of everyday events in the wider world, including weather reports. Such things tend to a lack of clarity in the text, a situation not helped by dialogue being carried on from one character to another on the same line – albeit separated by quotation marks. As a mark of its times and of the prevailing attitudes there are also casual references to Jews as if those characters’ ethnicity was the only thing noteworthy about them.

Not only dialogue but also the prose is usually rendered in demotic mode. This is an attempt to represent the various viewpoint characters’ thoughts and as such is justified. However, the demotic employed by the translator was USian – “Say,” or “Gee,” at the start of a piece of dialogue, phrases or words like “back of it,” “boloney,” “dames.” As a result, the book didn’t feel at all German to me. Since experiencing another culture, even if at second hand, is one of the reasons for reading translated fiction this might be thought to be something of a failing. Jolas’s translation has been decried elsewhere.

The back cover blurb describes Berlin Alexanderplatz as one of the masterpieces of modern European literature – the first German novel to adopt James Joyce’s technique. I must admit to not having read any Joyce so do not know whether it was this aspect of the book, the translator’s choices, or the work itself which rendered reading it a bit of a chore. I don’t regret having read it though. Reading new authors, rarely turns out not to be worthwhile in some way.

Additional sensitivity warning: the book contains one use of the ‘n’ word.

Pedant’s corner:- Franze (I have no idea why, in asides, Biberkopf’s first name is sometimes spelled this way,) “work must being immediately” (begin,) Frankfort (either on-the-Rhine, or on-the-Oder, many times. The usual English spelling is Frankfurt,) newsvender (many times, newsvendor,) offuscation (obfuscation?) “let’s me stand there” (lets,) thind (think,) “you might of sat down” (okay it was in dialogue, but does German actually have this egregious mispronunciation? You might have sat down, or, you might’ve,) gayety (x 2, gaiety,) dumfounded (dumbfounded,) “has waked up” (woken up,) “I wouldn’t of started” (ditto as above,) “lay of the land” (lie of the land,) “layin’ around” (lyin’ around,) “he puts his hands over her mouth” (this was Franz. At this point he only has one arm, therefore only one hand,) Karle (Karl,) Mandelay (Mandalay,) “the gang … insist” (the gang … insists,) busses (buses.) interne (x 3, intern.)

Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë

In “The Brontë Sisters: Three Novels,” Barnes and Noble, 2012, 164 p (plus iii p Introduction to the three novels.) Agnes Grey was first published 1847.

 The Brontë Sisters: Three Novels cover

Narrator Agnes Grey is the daughter of a poor-ish clergyman on whose infirmity she decides to find work as a governess to help out her family financially, albeit in a small way. The novel is a more or less straightforward account of her experiences first of all in a family where the children fail to do as they are asked, over-indulged as they are by their parents, a thankless endeavour not soon enough brought to an end, then in another – the Murrays – where she is in charge of two much older daughters, both of whom are headstrong in various degrees. The influence of Brontë’s own life in providing a milieu for her heroine is therefore obvious.

Agnes Grey is God-fearing, thoughtful and mindful of her place in the scheme of things and of her obligations to be compassionate. That others of higher social standing than herself may not be so minded, is something she becomes acutely aware of.

The hypocritical minister, the more truly Christian curate, the calculating mother prepared to sacrifice her daughter’s future happiness to a title, the scheming young girl callously set on snaring a man’s heart while never intending to gratify that desire, all make an appearance here. This fits neatly into the template of the Georgian or Victorian novel. It is all over rather quickly and it is relatively obvious from the moment of the appearance of the curate, Mr Weston, in Agnes Grey’s life where it will end. Everything seemed rather rushed, though, more like sketches for a novel than the complete article.

Pedant’s corner:- In the Introduction; a repeated full stop. Otherwise; no start quote mark when a chapter begins with a piece of dialogue, “it would be with different, feelings” (why the comma?) opportunityl (opportunity,) visiter(s) (several instances, visitor(s),) by-the-bye (previously – on the same page! – by-the-by.) “‘What do your mean, sir?’” (you,) secresy (an old spelling?) “None of the Murrays were disposed to….” (None … was disposed to,) visa versa (nowadays always vice versa,) wofully, woful (now spelled woefully, woeful,) “the congregation were departing” (the congregation was departing,) “not to shabby or mean” (not to appear shabby or mean,) worky-day (now spelled workaday,) “said be” (said he.)

The Flight of the Heron by D K Broster

William Heinemann, 1956, 286 p. First published 1925.

 The Flight of the Heron cover

Broster wasn’t Scottish but the background to her story most certainly is, probably the most worked-over seam in Scottish history, the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745-6, from Scott kicking off the whole historical novel malarkey with Waverley to Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander.

The focus here is very much not on the battles of that rebellion but on the relationship between Jacobite Ewen Cameron (of Ardroy) and a Government Army Officer, the Englishman Captain (later Major) Keith Windham of the Royal Scots.

Just after Bonnie Prince Charlie has landed in Scotland, Windham is captured by Cameron (due to no fault of his own – his horse shying at a heron rising in front of it, which only slightly injures him but breaks the horse’s leg – leaving him all but defenceless.) Windham is surprised to find Cameron not the barbarian of his expectations but a gentleman with fine and chivalrous manners. Having given his parole, Windham is indebted to Cameron for intervening when on a stroll round the Ardroy estate he comes across locals retrieving their arms cache from the thatched roofs of their houses and is thereby thought to be a spy. In the meantime, we find that Cameron’s foster-father – who is a seer – has predicted that Cameron and Windham will meet a total of five times, leaving the reader totting up their encounters. Sure enough the pairs’ paths cross again in Edinburgh after the Battle of Prestonpans when Windham has sallied from the castle in an attempt to capture the Prince – to whom Cameron is now aide-de-camp – who is visiting a house nearby, and once again Windham finds himself indebted to Cameron for allowing him to escape the clutches of Highlander reinforcements.

Windham’s opportunity to repay these favours occurs in the aftermath of Culloden when he arrives just in time to prevent the execution of an almost dying Cameron – wounded and exhausted, barely able to stand – at the hands of a detachment of Government soldiers sweeping the countryside for rebels. Windham’s speiring of Cameron as to the whereabouts of Clan Chief Lochiel then becomes a source of distrust between them before two final meetings in prison resolve their situation.

The book is dedicated to Violet Jacob, whose Flemington – which covers much the same ground as this – and Tales from Angus I read in 2015. Broster is not as good a stylist as Jacob was, though. Indeed, her prose tends to the utilitarian, but she does have an eye for landscape.

It is, however, impossible to read this book nowadays without wondering about its undercurrent, Windham’s several times expressed “strong attraction” for Cameron. His striving to ensure Cameron does not suffer unduly in the Government soldiers’ hands – even to the point of encurring the direct displeasure of the Duke of Cumberland – speaks of something more than mere obligation or friendship. A something that perhaps could not be addressed in so many words on the book’s first printing in 1925.

Pedant’s corner:- the very first word! Prolouge (Prologue,) h (he,) “‘the Elector’s’” (the meaning was ‘of the ‘Elector’ hence, the ‘Elector’’s,) a missing full stop, “a file of soldiers were advancing” (a file … was advancing,) Glangarry (Glengarry, I think,) “more then stupefaction” (more than,) ‘Hangman Hawley (‘Hangman Hawley’,) Mullins’ (Mullins’s,) an unnecessary end quotation mark, “which was, be believed” (which was, he believed,) Babenoch (Badenoch,) “‘for you solicitude’” (your,) “aide-de-camps” (aides-de-camp, as was used elsewhere, except for one “aides-de-camps”) a few missing commas before pieces of direct speech, lous d’or (louis d’or,) will-o-the-wisps (wills-o-the-wisp,) “were else” (where else,) staunch (stanch.)

Ancient Evenings by Norman Mailer

Picador, 1984, 715 p.

 Ancient Evenings cover

The main preoccupations of the novel as a form throughout the years have been with love, sex and death. This is not a love story and, since it revolves around reincarnation, that pretty much takes care of death. (Not entirely, there is a long description of the Battle of Kadesh, which isn’t exactly mortality free, and to be reborn one has to die, but these are all-but incidental.)

That leaves only sex, la petite mort. And boy, does it leave sex. You name it, it appears in these pages.

Not that there is much intimation of that to start with. We begin with someone – we quickly learn this person is named Menenhetet Two – waking up in the Great Pyramid of Khufu, assuming himself to be dead, and making his way up into the light. (Ancient Egyptians of course had an afterlife.) This is the first of seven Books in the novel, The Book of One Man Dead. The others are The Book of the Gods, The Book of the Child, The Book of the Charioteer, The Book of the Queens, The Book of the Pharaoh and The Book of Secrets, in all of which the chapters are preceded by that section’s descriptive Egyptian hieroglyph.

The first two are fairly turgid, the second, The Book of the Gods, being an account of Egyptian mythology but which doesn’t seem to serve much of a purpose beyond illustrating their Gods’ convolutions. It is only in the third section that we begin to have some appearance of story. Here Menenhetet Two, as a seven year-old boy, accompanies his parents (mother Hathfertiti and father Nef-khep-aukhem, who in Egyptian tradition are half-siblings,) and his great-grandfather Menenhetet One, to a celebration known as the Night of the Pig (an unclean animal of course,) in the presence of Pharaoh Ptah-nem-hotep, also known as Ramses the Ninth, in the royal city of Memphi. The later chapters play out the ramifications of this evening and Menenhetet One’s reminiscences of his four lives so far, but are mostly set during the life and times of the Great Pharaoh Ramses the Second, (Usermare Setpenere,) whom Menenhetet One served in various contexts – as charioteer, then General, then governor of the little queens in the House of the Secluded (the Pharoah’s harem,) then guard to Ramses’s Queen, Nefertiri, and later to the Pharaoh’s third Queen, the Hittite princess Rama-Nefru, but also, in Menenhetet One’s second life, as High Priest – during his long reign.

Egyptians, due to the influence of the Nile, are privy to other people’s thoughts and Menenhetet Two experiences all of this – and knowledge of his mother’s desire to actually have sex with Ptah-nem-hotep (eventually fulfilled) – mostly by pretending to be asleep. So it is that Menenhetet Two learns his great-grandfather and his mother have been long-time lovers and his real father is Ptah-nem-hotep, conceived by Hathfertiti through devious means.

Mailer makes a fair enough attempt to mimic ancient Egyptian speech patterns and phraseology but in the main the novel is overwritten, which renders it hard going to start with. The details of Menenhetet One’s first life though do manage to conjure some interest but there are still significant longueurs within most of his reminiscences.

My overall memory of this book, however, is likely to be of the quite ridiculous amount of sex it contains.

Pedant’s corner:- On the backcover “Nefititi” (In text it’s always Nefertiri.) Otherwise; lay (lie,) Isis’ (Isis’s,) Osiris’ (Osiris’s,) Horus’ (Horus’s.) “The air alt red” (altered.) “My means might be one-seventh of what once it had been” (of what once they had been.) “Ahead were nothing but mountains covered with trees” (Ahead was nothing but…,) paniers (panniers,) “the first of our advantages were the bows” (the first … was the bows,) staunch (x 2, stanch.)

Dark Summer in Bordeaux by Allan Massie

Quartet, 2012, 244 p.

 Dark Summer in Bordeaux  cover

This is the second of Massie’s Bordeaux trilogy, 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.)

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

(And two other stories.) Folio Society, 1997, 295 p (including 11 p Introduction by Jeremy Hardy,) plus 12 p illustrations by Francis Moseley and 3 p Author’s Note.

 Heart of Darkness cover

This is one of a uniform Folio Society edition of Conrad’s works. Despite its title the book actually contains three stories, Youth, Heart of Darkness itself and The End of the Tether.

The fairly short Youth is one of those ‘as told to’ stories, by someone called Marlow to a group with knowledge of seafaring about his trip as a Second Mate on a ship whose charge was the Captain’s first, carrying coal to Bangkok from Newcastle. Before the ship can leave port it has to be caulked, then it is bashed by another steamer while still in dock and more repairs are required. On setting out the pumps have to be manned constantly and they are forced to turn back. It by now has such a reputation no crew can be found locally and men have to be fetched from Liverpool. The repairs are finally finished.

But, before she sets sail, the rats start to leave.

Heart of Darkness (In the list of 100 best Scottish books, but only Scottish because it was first published by Edinburgh based Blackwood’s Magazine.)

This long short story is another tale told by Marlow (this time accorded the first name Charlie) telling a ship’s crew in the offing off Gravesend of his trip as a steamboat captain up an unnamed African river – the Introduction says it’s the Congo but that is not in the text – to find the successful but rogue ivory trader Kurtz.

This ‘telling’ style is more obtrusive here than in Youth and erects a barrier between the reader and the text. The actual narrator regurgitating Marlow’s tales – both here and in Youth – is neither named nor makes much of an impression on the reader. The story is therefore rendered opaque (okay, it’s titled Heart of Darkness, a degree of opacity is perhaps required) but it makes disbelief more difficult to suspend.

Caught in a thick white fog near Kurtz’s station the boat is attacked with spears and a crew member is killed but blasts on the ship’s horn disperse the attackers. Marlow observes near Kurtz’s station a row of posts with severed heads on them. The natives seem to want to attack the boat again but Kurtz’s influence on them prevents that. When he is finally brought on board it seems to Marlow’s eyes that Kurtz has ‘gone native.’ He is in any case very ill and dies on the trip back.

(The) Heart of Darkness was first published in Blackwood’s Magazine in 1898/9 (a book containing all three stories in this volume appeared in 1902) and despite Marlow’s expressed disillusion with the trading company’s methods it is representative of the attitudes of the time, presenting the Africans as ‘others.’ Even the story’s title is emblematic of a disregard both for the land- and riverscapes and for the accomplishments and society Africans of the time had. However, Conrad was writing at that time and for an audience who had those prejudices.

The End of the Tether is much the longest story here. In it, ship’s Captain Whalley had made a fortune (and promised it to his daughter who in turn had married a no-hoper) only to lose it in a stock market crash, leaving him with only a ship called The Fair Maid to sell. The proceeds go partly towards his daughter but the rest he invests in a ship called the Sofala whose main owner is its engineer, famous for getting rid of Captains at short notice. The arrangement is to last for three years after which time Whalley will regain the stake he put in. The time is almost up when Whalley begins to show signs of losing his touch. The second mate comes to the conclusion that Whalley is actually letting his Malay helmsman direct the boat and tries to blackmail him. The truth is more nuanced than that.

Note. Modern sensibilities may quail at the use of the word nigger(s) and ‘Marlow’ also describes native Africans as savages.

Pedant’s corner:- “to come abroad” (to come aboard,) curb (kerb.)

Girl with Green Eyes by Edna O’Brien

Penguin, copyright page has 1964 but this edition is a later reprint, 211 p. First published in 1962 as The Lonely Girl.

Girl with Green Eyes cover

This second part of O’Brien’s trilogy sees Caithleen Brady not really having learned the lesson of her infatuation with Mr Gentleman in The Country Girls. On one of her nights out with her friend Baba in Dublin (where she has lodgings and a job) she meets Eugene Gaillard and immediately finds him attractive. He is of course much older than her but she does not find out till a bit later he has a past which includes a wife and a child. Nevertheless she allows herself to be taken to his home in the country for weekends but only after several false starts (one visit being interrupted by her drunk of a father coming mob-handed to the house and assaulting Eugene) does she finally lose her virginity to him. Even her chance encounter with Mr Gentleman, where she is dismissed more or less curtly, does not forewarn her of the dangers of intimacy on such terms.

She finds the exposure of her background embarrassing and later Eugene characterises her (and by implication rural Ireland) as bred in “Stone Age ignorance and religious savagery.” Eugene’s wife turns the screw by threatening to prevent contact with his child and Caithleen fatally gives him an ultimatum.

Her experiences do give her insight though, “it is only with our bodies that we ever really forgive one another; the mind pretends to forgive, but it harbours and re-remembers in moments of blackness,” but the situation cannot hold. “Up to then I thought that being one with him in bed meant being one with him in life, but I knew now that I was mistaken, and that lovers are strangers, in between times.” Yet she still hopes Eugene will come to rescue her.

Pedant’s corner:- haemorridge (x2, haemorrhage,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech (many times,) salame (salami,) sprung (sprang,) “a tick in his right cheek,) (tic,) “the Miss Walkers” (the Misses Walker,) “The inside of my lips were covered with water blisters” (The inside … was covered with … .)

The Glorious Thing by Christine Orr

Merchiston Publishing, 2013, 235 p, plus i p Acknowledgements, iii p iv p Introduction by Yvonne mcCleery, iii p Afterword by Alistair McCleery, ii p About the author, ii p Discussion Questions. First published 1919.

The Glorious Thing cover

This novel is set on the Home Front during the Great War. David Grant has been invalided out of the Army and has returned home to Castlerig near Edinburgh to convalesce and build himself up. His path crosses with that of the Sutherland sisters, Effie, Nannie, Marion and Jullie.

Marion is unobtrusive and divides men into Bounders (too objectionable,) Selfish Lumps (too absorbed in their conversation to thank you when you passed them tea,) Silly Asses (attempting either to be funny or, worse, sentimental,) Nice Boys (foolish beyond expression) and Dear Old Things (usually friends of Uncle Alexander.) Only her brother Pat was an exception and she realises David Grant too doesn’t fit any of the bills.

Nothing very out of the ordinary occurs in the book: it is a quiet examination of ordinary lives carried on in uncommon circumstances. As soon as David encounters Marion it is obvious where the story will lead but there are complications along the way. “There is nothing more bitter than to have the sweetness of a friendship turned sour by a few interfering words, or the jests of thoughtless outsiders.” However, David’s early thought that “Life is a thing too glorious to be enjoyed” is not borne out except in the circumstances of Nannie’s fiancé’s death in the war and her subsequent attempt to find solace via spiritualism.

This sits somewhat at odds with David’s musings on “the artistic temperament” which he conceives “is a real and wonderful thing; nothing less than the power to understand and love the eternal beauty of the world.” Of course, it is; but the eternal beauty of the world can be an elusive thing to grasp.

The blurb describes Orr as a true hidden gem on the Scottish literary scene. Hidden certainly. I had never heard of her until a recent (though well pre-lockdown) visit to the Scottish Writers’ Museum in Edinburgh; an institution dedicated mainly to Burns, Scott and Stevenson but on one of whose walls was a description of Orr’s career – enough to spur me on to seek her writings out. Unfortunately most are long out of print; and scarce.

Despite being set during the Great War, The Glorious Thing still has a kind of Victorian sensibility – much like the Findlater sisters’ Crossriggs, but better written, and underneath it all, with the prevalence of women in the narrative, a sense of the changes the war wrought.

Pedant’s corner:- Minnie Grant says, ‘Aren’t I swanky?’ (The Scottish form is ‘Amn’t I?) Chambers’ (Chambers’s.) “‘I wonder what be thinks of us’” (what he thinks,) a missing comma before or after a piece of direct speech (a few times,) shrunk (shrank.) “All telegrams do not bring bad news.” (Not true; some telegrams did. What Orr meant was, “Not all telegrams bring bad news,) a speech which was carried over into the next paragraph had an end quotation mark before the paragraph break, “hearts tae break and nine tae sell” (“hearts tae break and none tae sell” makes more sense,) appall (appal.)

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