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The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

Chatto & Windus, 2019, 453 p.

All religions are conspiracies against women. Theocracies even more so. Atwood’s conception of her repressive society of Gilead (in The Handmaid’s Tale and here) was not, I suspect, designed to illustrate that point in particular – rather than to suggest that advances in social arrangements can be reversed, the price of freedom is eternal vigilance – but nevertheless does so. The source book/“sacred” text of the relevant conspiracy may not even contain the words used to justify women’s subjection by those of that bent. They instead tend to pick out the bits that suit them or else distort its contents. That point is made here when one of the narrators is warned about the Bible that, “It doesn’t say what they say it does.”

I can’t actually remember much about the text of The Handmaid’s Tale (to which this is a companion rather than a sequel) beyond the theocratic authoritarianism and the sexual exploitation, except that the book didn’t have a firm resolution – it just ended.

The Testaments is different in that it is not just one recollection of life in Gilead but three, and we see the seeds of Gilead’s downfall being sown. One of the narrators is Agnes Jemima (in a transcript of the testimony of Witness 369A supposedly collected by the Mayday Resistance movement,) a daughter of Gilead, for which read the daughter of a handmaiden but legally of her Commander “father,” Kyle, and his wife Tabitha. Tabitha looked after Agnes’s interests but died and Commander Kyle took a new wife, Paula, who most emphatically did not. The first account we read, though, is from “The Ardua Hall Holograph” a manuscript found hidden in a book of Cardinal Newman’s writings. It was from the library of Ardua Hall, the headquarters of the Aunts who oversaw the lives of the women of Gilead. One of their functions was to keep track of the genetic heritage of Gilead’s children as so many’s may not have been what was generally thought. Uniquely among the women of Gilead, Aunts were allowed books. The Holograph was written by Aunt Lydia – whom we are to assume is the same Lydia described by Offred in The Handmaid’s Tale. Lydia knew where the regime’s secrets were buried and had a tacit agreement with Commander Judd, one of the prime movers of Gilead, that she should have a free hand in organising women’s lives in return for useful information. But pre-Gilead she had been a judge; in the Holograph she remembers her earlier life and the humiliations borne when that was blown apart and is only biding her time to expose all Gilead’s hypocrisies. The third strand (a transcript of the testimony of Witness 369B) is the story of a girl brought up in Toronto by a couple who ran a second-hand clothes business but were active in the Underground Femaleroad which spirited refugees away from Gilead and whom she felt were overly protective of her. (Minor spoiler next.) Frequent early mentions of Baby Nicole, a cause célèbre both in Gilead and Canada, a poster-child who was taken from her “parents” in Gilead and for whose return its government actively campaigned and whose Pearl Girls, sent out to convert Canadians to the Gilead way of life, were constantly on the lookout for, provide heavy hints as to her identity. Atwood intersperses the three testimonies expertly, though the connection between Agnes and Jade/Nicole feels a bit too pat. That though is justified by the book’s coda which, like the similar addendum to The Handmaid’s Tale, is formed of notes from a symposium on Gilead Studies, here the Thirteenth, held at Passamaquoddy (formerly Bangor,) Maine, in 2197.

In the Holograph Aunt Lydia tells us of her secret cache of proscribed books, which includes Jane Eyre, Anna Karenina, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Paradise Lost and Lives of Girls and Women, but also that “Knowledge is power, especially discreditable knowledge. I am not the first person to have recognised this, or to have capitalised on it when possible: every intelligence agency in the world has always known it.” The Holograph incidentally illustrates the jealousies and rivalries of a closed order and the intricacies of power relationships while Lydia’s acidity is shown by her inclusion in a list of “hoary chetsnuts” the aphorism that “Time wounds all heels.” In a neat touch by Atwood the meeting/eating place at Ardua Hall (whose slippery motto is Per Ardua Cum Estrus) is called the Schlafly Café.

Moments of horror in The Testaments are rare. There are mentions of Particicution, where convicts are torn to pieces by handmaids (a seemingly eagerly grabbed outlet for their justifiable anger,) but the descriptions tend to avoid detail. The experiences of Agnes and her friend Becca herself at the hands of Becca’s dentist father (with Becca it was more than hands) exemplify that an obsession with controlling sex, far from making it go away, (though those in control of course make sure they get more than their share,) only serves to emphasise its centrality to human experience, perhaps even accentuate sexuality’s unsavoury extremities.

As to the prohibition on women (except the Aunts) reading, Agnes in her spell at Ardua Hall gets to the heart of the matter, “Being able to read and write did not provide the answers to all questions. It led to questions, and then to others.” In a theocracy, in any dictatorship, questions are to be avoided

Perhaps it was familiarity with the recent TV adaptation of the earlier book or the wider world demonstration that such a society is a likely goal for those who somehow feel the presence of women in the public sphere in some way disadvantages them The Testaments seemed a better structured, more rounded book than my memory of The Handmaid’s Tale. The three narrators are convincing, though Jade/Nicole doesn’t quite seem to realise the seriousness of the perils inside Gilead and Atwwod’s insights into human behaviour under stress are acute.

Pedant’s corner:- tête-a-têtes (strictly têtes-a-têtes, or even têtes-a-tête,) a missing comma at the end of a piece iof dialogue where the sentence continued after it.

In Limbo by Christopher Evans

Granada, 1985, 286 p.

Along with four companions – only ever described as Riley, Treadwell, Sinnott and Wright – Mike Carpenter has been confined to Limbo, a soulless, windowless (the cover image is wrong in this respect) prison of sorts, where they are under constant surveillance. None of the five has any idea why they are being held in this way as, to their knowledge, they have not committed a crime. Under the more or less constant scrutiny of the guards/attendants their days are spent in PT exercises, games such as snooker or chess, reading newspapers and watching TV. The food is bland but not unwholesome (though at one point they suspect it is being adulterated by laxatives.) Occasionally they will be hauled before the person in charge, a man named Naughton, who will berate them for any misdemeanours they have committed. Some relief for Carpenter is provided by interviews with Dr Dempster, a female medic who looks after the inmates’ welfare. In the nature of such an unresolved existence a couple of the five try to form an escape committee but Carpenter sees this as futile. His reflections on the constrained life and his comparitive boredom lead to him trying to invent slogans for his companions but also one for himself, It doesn’t help.

The author’s history as a Science Fiction writer (his previous novels had been The Insider and Capella’s Golden Eyes and he went on to write Aztec Century and Mortal remains) might incline the reader to the view that the incarceration is part of a psychological experiment of some sort and that the experiences in Limbo are real. Against that the realistic tone of the narrative and the mundane nature of the confinement argues for something a bit less exotic. This is heightened by the slow morphing of the storyline into a recounting of Carpenter’s memories of his life before Limbo, memories which gradually begin to take up more of the narrative space. These deal with his drifting from school to University and then from job to job but more particularly with his relationships with the sexual interests in his life, from his unrequited passion for schoolmate Gail through his experiences with his women lovers, Veronica, Karen, Eleanor and Penny (not to mention one night spent with the enthusiastic Cicely,) all of which were unsatisfactory in one way or another. In this reading his four companions in Limbo may be aspects of Carpenter’s own personality.

It would be thoughtless of a reviewer to reveal which – if either – of these two possibilities is borne out but In Limbo is very well written. Evans has a flair for depicting character and circumstance and the novel’s resolution does follow the logic of what has gone before. I’ve read a lot worse. A lot worse.

Pedant’s corner:- “a fresh batch of magazines and periodicals were delivered” (a fresh batch … was delivered,) “the gate is strait” (straight?) “like Saul on the road to Tarsus, he would experience a blinding moment of revelation” (Saul came from Tarsus. His blinding moment was on the road to Damascus,) “that of Veronicas” (if that’s a possessive it should be ‘Veronica’s’, but it’s redundant; the phrase ought to be simply ‘that of Veronica’,) “Heisenburg’s Uncertainty Principle” (Heisenberg’s.) “At the interview he old the” (he told,) “eight gin and sodas” (grammatically ‘eight gins and sodas’ – or even ‘eight gins and soda’,) falderal (folderol,) “gin and tonics” (see ‘eight gin and sodas’,) “a newsagents” (newsagent’s.)

The Interpreter by Diego Marani

Dedalus, 2016, 215 p. Translated from the Italian, L’interprete, by Judith Landry.

This is a very odd book indeed, though dealing, as it does, with language, it can be viewed as a kind of companion piece to Marani’s New Finnish Grammar and The Last of the Vostyachs. The narrator, Felix Bellamy, a Swiss national, is head of an interpretation department who becomes fascinated by one of his staff beginning to exhibit a peculiar kind of glossolalia, making sounds that are effectively unintelligible and which may be those of a primordial language which has long since been forgotten.

Curiously, Bellamy, parachuted into his supervisor’s job with vague promises of further promotion, is unsympathetic to translation, mistrusting his underlings as “circus performers, shifty, dishonest, quick-change artists, mental stuntmen.” Quite how Marani’s translator reacted to his outbursts against the profession is a question. These all may of course be a jest on Marani’s part but he has his narrator go on to tell us, “Languages are like toothbrushes: the only one you should put in your mouth is your own … it’s dangerous to let yourself be contaminated by the germs of another tongue … a foreign language injected into our mind brings with it the taint of unknown sounds, a vision of worlds that are incomprehensible to us – the lure of other truths and a devilish desire to know them.” It is that lure, though, that devilish desire, which makes reading translated fiction so interesting.

The interpreter disappears, leaving a list of names of cities, some of which have been ticked off. Bellamy’s wife leaves him (which may be connected with the interpreter’s disappearance) and he himself begins to suffer from the interpreter’s malaise and goes for treatment to a clinic run by a Dr Barnung. Barnung tells him French and German are similar in the way they view reality, but in essence are profoundly different. “Latin and Germanic languages have something in common … but they cannot mix. In Romanian, all that is rational about Rome, mingled with Mediterranean ebullience, becomes fused with Slav passion and melts into the yearning melancholy of the steppe. German is a bit like aspirin, it’s good for everything: it clarifies thought processes, stiffens resolve and makes feelings bare.” Felix soon perceives something is amiss at the clinic, leaves, and sets out to try to find the interpreter by visiting the cities as yet unticked on his list.

Then things get really weird. The text morphs into a species of thriller when Bellamy is targeted by operatives of Dr Barnung, but escapes. To survive he has to embark on a crime spree, robbing petrol stations, becoming known as ‘the Beast of Bukovina,’ taking up with Magda Kobori, a young woman whose car he stole, with her in it. They stravaig through the back roads of Romania like some sort of Balkan Bonnie and Clyde before Bellamy returns once more to tracking the interpreter.

I’m never sure if something like this is because of the opacities of translation or whether it’s a true indication of foreign sensibilities but, in common with other protagonists of fiction translated into English, Bellamy as a character here presents as incomplete, almost as a kind of absence, though his misanthropy shows in a passage where he reflects, “I was exposing myself to risk by mixing with insane deviants such as interpreters, people with slippery, unformed identities, in whose company sprinklings of the irrational are more likely to insinuate themselves and further crook humanity’s already crooked timber.” His actions are off-kilter, not quite reasonable, nor perhaps justifiable, though it is not impossible – highly likely even – that we are being given a portrait of a madman. Other languages apparently do that sort of thing to you.

The Interpreter was interesting enough but didn’t, for me, reach the same heights that New Finnish Grammar, The Last of the Vostyachs, or even Marani’s immediately preceding novel, God’s Dog, did.

Pedant’s corner:- “the presence of their austere forms in that house were so many pointers” (strictly, the presence … was,) “his voice rising to a crescendo” (sigh. The crescendo is the rise, not its climax,) focussing (focusing,) enthrall (enthral,) hung (hanged, but it was in a letter,) Voivodina (usually spelled Vojvodina,) no quote mark at start of one paragraph where a character’s speech was continued, swum (swam,) “roads which lead” (which led,) Janos’ (x2, Janos’s,) sunk (x3, sank,) “now I could scarcely breath” (breathe,) “I was born aloft” (borne aloft,) “here in Munch” (Munich,) shell-incrusted (shell-encrusted,) “with brass lamps hanging from brightly painted beams and gleaming door handles” (the lamps hung from door handles?) “a cluster of coloured balloons were swaying in the wind” (a cluster was swaying.)

The Journey to the East by Herman Hesse

Peter Owen, 1970, 91 p. Translated from the German Die Morgenlandfahrt by Hilda Rosner.

This is one of those pieces of fiction which tend not to be produced by English language writers. It is an account of a journey through Europe supposedly to the East (though we never in fact get there) but also through time: the narrator (H H) encounters various historical characters, in the Middle Ages and the Golden Age, during his wanderings.

The book begins with H H’s reflections on the Great War, shortly after it ended. (On his journey an interlocutor who has written a book about the war tells H H that no book “‘could convey any real picture of the war to the most serious reader, if he had not himself experienced the war.’”)

H H joins the League, a secret organisation whose makeup and dealings he is constrained by vow not to reveal. Despite this he is attempting to write down just those – without breaking his oath not to do so. His great experience, the journey to the East, was, “a constant pilgrimage towards East, towards the Home of Light. The goal was not only the East, but the home and youth of the soul.”

He describes various aspects of the journey, a stop at Bremgarten, meetings with those people from history, an incident in the Morbio gorge. This last involves an attendant called Leo whose disappearance from there is the central point of the (very short) book. All the League remnants seem to think Leo has taken some of their belongings with him but later H H has access to their written accounts of the time and they remember things differently to him. He becomes separated himself from the League and all its members to the extent that he begins to believe it never existed – till he is rejoined to them and finds his lonely sojourning and despair was a test. At his trial for such apostasy the head of the League tells the court, “despair is the result of each earnest attempt to understand and vindicate human life. Despair is the result of each earnest attempt to go through life with virtue, justice and understanding and to fulfil their requirements.”

This, then, is an allegory; of a spiritual and ethical journey. As a consequence, it has few of the usual consolations of fiction, but makes up for it with gravitas.

Pedant’s corner:- “From the castle’s turrets of Bremgarten” (an inelegant translation? From the castle turrets of Bremgarten? From the turrets of the castle of Bremgarten?) “as if each one endeavoured to conceived as lost” (to conceive as lost,) “the time was not that ripe for that” (another inelegancy, ‘the time was not ripe for that’ would do fine,) dissention (dissension.)

The Dollmaker by Nina Allan

riverrun, 2019, 409 p.

This book is an odd mixture of three types of narrative, the first person memoir of Andrew Garvie, a man of small stature (four feet nine inches,) inevitably nicknamed the Dwarf at school, and who has been fascinated by dolls since he was a boy before going on to manage to make a living producing bespoke dolls, interspersed with letters to him from Bramber Winters, an inhabitant of an asylum in the West Country, and five short stories, The Duchess, Amber Furness,The Elephant Girl, Happenstance and The Upstairs Window, as written by one Ewa Chaplin (and supposedly translated from the Polish by Erwin Blacher 2008, as the text notes after each one’s title.) Chaplin, another doll maker, had had to flee Poland for England just before the Nazis took over.

Despite Andrew not being a true achondroplasic – his narrative informs us there are many varieties of dwarfism – he suffers frequent comments on his size and appearance and there are other references to the famous seven dwarfs. His affinity with Bramber comes after he answers an advertisement she placed in a magazine named Ponchinella asking for information on Chaplin’s life and work.

The book veers at times into fantasy but only occasionally. One of the short stories mentions the fae folk and Andrew steals from a museum a doll, ‘The Artist,’ which is able to talk to him – but may of course only be voicing his inner thoughts.

Allan’s writing, whether as Garvie, Winters or ‘Chaplin,’ is superb. It flows, builds up a picture of Garvie and Winters, lays out their lives and, as Chaplin, the characters in ‘her’ stories deftly and economically. Those stories parallel and counterpoint the experiences of Garvie and Winters and most of them either feature or mention a dwarf or someone with a physical deformity – but they do tend to interrupt the flow of Andrew and Bramber’s relationship and require the reader to reset every time they appear. If you were harsh you could say that Allan has found a way to recycle her short stories into a larger whole, fixing them up into a novel. The overall impression though is that this has been extremely well thought out and executed.

My previous reading of Allan had been that there was something skightly askew about her writing, an oddness. The first ‘Chaplin’ story here crystallised that. It was almost as if in her previous books I were reading a translation and something in the background wasn’t coming through. Some of that oddness is apparent in the ‘Chaplin’ stories – but they are supposed to be translations which is why I made the connection. In the Andrew and Bramber sections here though everything is transparent and lucid.

Allan is a talent, of that there is no doubt. Here, her strengths show up in that lucidity.

Pedant’s corner:- “were stood at the bar” (standing,) “a team of detectives were tgrashing” (a team .. was trashing,) sprung (sprang,) vanishment (awkward sounding word. It’s in the dictionary but ‘disappearance’ would do just as well,) stumm (schtum.) “He decision to stay on” (Her decision,) “a ragged reddish-brown ellipsis” (ellipse – Allan seemed to be referring to a shape, not to a truncation, or if so it could only be interpreted that way at a severe push,) “the post office stores” (eight words later referred to as ‘it’, hence, ‘store’,) “the Church of St Ninian’s” (the possessive is already included in ‘Ninian’s’, hence either ‘St Nininan’s Church’, or ‘the Church of St Ninian’,) Andrew buys a return ticket from Bodmin to Tarquin’s Cross but then at the start of the return journey (surely unnecessarily) buys another ticket to Bodmin, “‘the Penzance train normally arrives on to Platform 3’” (trains arrive ‘at’ platforms, not on to them.)

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë

Penguin Classics, 1996, 536 p (including 3 p Preface to the Second Edition, 34p Notes on the Text and 2 p Select Bibliography) plus xix p Introduction by Stevie Davis. Originally published in 1848.

This novel is effectively two different stories in one. The enveloping narrative is a series of letters addressed to J Halford Esq by one Gilbert Markham of Linden-Car. Enclosed within it, but much the most substantial part, is a personal testament via diary entries of the woman he comes to love, telling her life story up till she met him. She is, of course, the tenant of Wildfell Hall of the title, Mrs Helen Graham.

The arrival of this widow at the dilapidated Hall, only part of which is now inhabitable, causes much comment in the village, as do her secretive ways. Gilbert first espies her in the local church where he is more interested in her than the sermon. He eventually sets out to the Hall and meets her via an incident involving her young son Arthur, of whom she seems overly protective but whom Markham soon befriends.

Their relationship builds slowly, mediated through Markham’s friendship with Arthur. Mrs Graham has very few dealings with the locals – she will not go anywhere without Arthur and as he cannot walk far extended trips are impractical – but does visit the Markhams’ house where in one conversation he says to her, “When a lady does consent to listen to an argument against her own opinions, she is always predetermined to withstand it – to listen only with her bodily ears, keeping the mental organs resolutely closed against the strong reasoning.”

Slowly rumour and innuendo grow in the village around Helen’s past until Markham confronts her about the tittle-tattle whereupon she gives him her diary to read so that he can learn the truth about her. She is not a widow, but still married, to an Arthur Huntingdon, to whose attractions she had succumbed against her aunt’s better judgement. Her husband is of course a very bad lot indeed and his behaviour was such that she felt forced to flee taking their son with her to avoid his father contaminating his upbringing, her only recourse since divorce was impossible for a woman and as a wife she was in effect a non-person, with no legal rights.

The novel is implicitly feminist therefore not only in that Helen is portrayed as wronged but that she is a stronger, more moral and upright human being than her husband or any of his cronies. Indeed, she is more morally upstanding than Markham since his treatment of Mr Lawrence – who unbeknown to him till later in the book, is Helen’s brother – is thoroughly reprehensible (as well as criminal.) In fact Helen is almost saintly in her forbearance and her actions towards her husband when she discovers he has fallen ill.

It would not be hard to deduce from this book that the author was a daughter of the parsonage. It is saturated with Biblical allusions and quotations. Helen derives most of her consolations from her religious beliefs.

In human affairs things don’t really change that much. Despite complaints from reviewers at the original time of publication that the upper classes no longer behaved in the debauched manner of Huntingdon’s friends as Brontë portrayed them, their activities reminded me of nothing so much as the Bullingdon Club. The book’s feminism most likely also formed the grounds for the unappreciative nature of the original reviews, though Anne’s sister Charlotte also thought the work reprehensible.

To modern eyes the novel is perhaps overwritten and overwrought but Brontë was exposing an ongoing injustice. A degree of fire and venom is understandable.

Pedant’s corner:- window’s weeds (widow’s weeds,) a missing end quote mark, “‘that he is a sensible sober respectable?’” (needs no ‘a’,) ““till the gentleman come. ‘What gentlemen?’” (it was to be a group of men therefore ‘gentlemen’, for ‘gentleman’,) “‘might seem contradict that opinion’” (might seem to contradict that opinion,) plaguy (plaguey?) “in behalf of” (is this an early nineteenth century usage? – on behalf of,) an extra open quote mark in the middle of a piece of direct speech. In the Notes; Jesus’ (x2, Jesus’s,) paeon (paean,) Dives’ (Dives’s,) Mephistophilis (said to be in Marlowe. He spelled it Mephastophilis.)

The Ballad & the Source by Rosamond Lehmann

Collins, 1978, 316 p. First published 1944.

Narrator Rebecca Landon’s grandmother – long since deceased – was friendly in her youth with the Mrs Jardine who has come to live with her second husband, Harry, in the nearby big house. Mrs Jardine extends an invitation to eleven-year old Rebecca and her sisters to visit her at the house. Later Mrs Jardine’s grandchildren, Malcolm, Maise and Cherry, hitherto estranged from her come to the house to stay since their father is ill. Their mother, Ianthe, had been kept till adulthood from Mrs Jardine after she had left her first husband for another man. This would have been in Victorian times as within the novel’s time span the Great War breaks out and has its doleful effect on some of the characters. Ianthe also is estranged from her husband.

The plot’s motor is Rebecca’s interest in Ianthe and the life she led but the novel’s structure is odd. Most of Ianthe’s life story is told through the medium of three extended conversations Rebecca has. One is with Tilly, an old retainer, but known to both families involved, another with Mrs Jardine herself, and the last, much later in time, with Maisie.

Presumably the source of the title is what Mrs Jardine tells Rebecca is “the fount of life, the quick spring that rises in illimitable depths of darkness and flows through every living thing from generation to generation.” Mrs Jardine also asks her, “‘Do you know what goes to make a tragedy? The pitting of one individual againt the forces of society. Society is cruel and powerful. The one stands no chance against its combined hostilities.’” She also has barbs towards her countrymen, “‘Englishmen dislike women, that is the blunt truth of it..….. Do you not know that in England it is considered immoral to teach a girl the needs of her heart and body?’” adding that women themselves were complicit in this, with mothers feeling, “‘Let her go through what I did .….. She will get used to it. I had to: why should she not,’” then asking, “‘How long I wonder will ignorance spell purity and knowledge shame?’”

One of the characters was brought up among Zulus and, “‘He thinks what white people have done to them is awful: taken away their land and shoved them in the mines and made them lose their human pride … made them sad.’”

The crucial tale-telling conversations are very well rendered by Lehmann but the text surrounding them tends to be overwritten and not at all like the words of an eleven year old (even if she goes on to very early adulthood.) The text also employs some heavy-handed phonetic renderings of the accents of a Scot and of a Cockney.

Note to the sensitive; some usages reflect the book’s time. At one point the word niggers is used but as condemnatory of people who say it. Yet a subsequent sentence is still patronising to “coloured” people and calls them “negroes.”

Pedant’s corner:- a missing quotation mark at the start of a piece of direct speech (x 2,) “A crotcheted crossover” (crocheted,) a missing embedded quotation mark at the end of a piece of direct speech quoting direct speech, “the opaqueness of her flesh” (what’s wrong with opacity?) “lowland Scottish” (Lowland,) unworrdly (unworrldly,) “didn’t use to” (didn’t used to,) jasminc (jasmine.)

The New Life by Orhan Pamuk

faber and faber, 1998 (according to the publication page but post 2006 as the cover and author blurb both mention Pamuk’s Nobel Prize,) 300 p. Translated from the Turkish Yeni Hayat (Ilepşim Yaymarlı, 1994,) by Güneli Gün.

 The New Life cover

One day narrator Osman Akif read a book and his whole life changed. He had glimpsed the book in the hand of Janan, a girl at the same college as him, stumbled on a copy in a second-hand bookstall that afternoon and immediately bought it. His obsession with the book spilled over into one with the girl, whom he befriended along with her boyfriend Mehmet (later also known as Nahit, and later still Osman – there are reasons for these name shifts.) Mehmet was apparently shot during a student demonstration but Osman knew he survived and walked away so set out to find him, taking Janan along with him. This involved many bus journeys through the heart of Turkey, many videos of films watched while travelling, and several bus crashes. (There is something of that fixation of J G Ballard about this aspect of the book.)

A flavour of the text is given by Osman’s thought that “it was not right for Janan even to imagine the land of perdition, heartbreak and bloodshed because in that twilight land illuminated by the book, Death, Love, and Terror wandered like hapless ghosts in the guise of downtrodden, heartbroken men with frozen faces who packed guns.”

Reading The New Life is an odd experience at times. Osman addresses some sentences to ‘Angel’ but it is never entirely clear (at least, not to me) who Angel is meant to be. Turkish life is illuminated in the margins; the family who moved in across from Osman the day he first read the book, once more in a Pamuk novel the salience of football (sadly always named soccer by the translator,) the statues of Atatürk in seemingly every town square, the endless cafés and bus stations, the past of Osman’s Uncle Rıfkı, a railwayman who wrote children’s stories which starred Turkish children as the heroes of US Western tales, the redolence of New Life brand caramels, defunct in the narrator’s present. Uncle Rıfkı also wrote an adult book, which was banned, with only a few copies surviving in the wild. That book was also titled The New Life and is that same book which obsessed Osman.

In their final meeting Mehmet tells Osman, “‘A good book is something that reminds us of the whole world ….. a piece of writing that implies things that don’t exist, a kind of absence, or death …. But it is futile to look outside the book for a realm that is located beyond the words.’” As if to underline the literary nature of this endeavour, the niceties of its twists and turns, the narrator at one point asks, has the reader “extended enough attention and intellect at every turn of this book?” and describes himself in these terms; “In people like me whose lives have slipped off the track, sorrow presents itself in the form of rage that wants to pass itself off as cleverness. And it’s the desire to be clever that finally spoils everything.”

The New Life may be clever, but it’s not clever clever. And it’s not spoiled by any of this philosophising.

Pedant’s corner:- In the “by the same author” list, Instanbul (Istanbul,) on the publication page, “Orhan Pumuk” (Pamuk.) Otherwise; “the lay of the land” (it’s ‘lie of the land’,) “there were an odd number of bottle caps” (there was an odd number,) maws (a maw is a stomach, not a mouth,) “life’s mystery will become manifested to me” (‘manifest’ would be more forceful,) djins (djinns,) “Andre Maurois’ novel” (Maurois’s. This must be the correct formulation since the final ‘s’ in Maurois is unsounded and so, in order to make a possessive, the extra ‘s’ after the apostrophe must be added,) exploitive (exploitative,) “had really waked me up” (woken.)

And the Cock Crew by Fionn MacColla

Canongate Classics, 1995, 184 p, plus vi p Introduction by John Herdman. First published 1945.

The author, Thomas Douglas Macdonald, adopted the pen name Fionn MacColla (the Introduction always spells this as Mac Colla) on taking up writing. In his work he seems to have made it his mission to document the loss of the Highland Gaelic culture and way of life. And the Cock Crew is in line with this undertaking as it is set during the onset of the Highland Clearances. It also examines the crisis of conscience of a profoundly Calvinist minister, known as Zachary Wiseman to non-Highlanders but Maighstir Sachairi to his flock.

Over twenty years before the events of the novel Maighstir Sachairi had arrived in Gleann Luachrach (or Glen Loochry, as rendered in a later sentence uttered by a non-Gael) to find it to his mind far too frivolous and ungodly. Under his influence the people had slowly come round to his way of thinking and behaviour except, perhaps, for Fearchar the poet. The times are, however, about to change. “Something else has come among us, something from altogether outside our way of life, and a man has to take account of it although he doesn’t even understand it or know what it wants for him…..Nowadays a man has to honour God and the Factor.”

That factor, Master Byars, known to the glen’s inhabitants as “The Black Foreigner,” though he is in fact a Lowland Scot, has an abiding and visceral hatred of anything Gaelic and cannot bear even the sound of that language. His antipathy towards Gaels led him to believe his life had been threatened by local men who had thought him lost and offered to help him. He called a contingent of redcoats to accompany him to where he had summoned the local villagers to assemble in order to arraign them for this. Two other local ministers are on the factor’s side but Maighstir Sachairi temporarily resolves the confrontation by interviewing the men concerned and telling Byars, “They are a people upright, peaceable, temperate in their ways and righteous with their neighbours to a most seengular degree in our times and generation.” The resultant reprieve for the villagers leads them to believe that they are in Sachairi’s protection.

It is, though, the Black Foreigner’s intention to remove the people from the glens and to replace them with sheep. The clan leader, Mac ’Ic Eachainn, to whose forefathers the clans could have looked for succour in the past “is now no better than an Englishman,” lives down south, does not speak Gaelic and is in fact in favour of the new economic project.

There is an impediment to marrying in the glen in that any man who does so will lose his holdings and be banished. In the absence of a wedding, Mairi-daughter-of-Eaghann-Gasda, an otherwise devout and modest woman whom Maighstir Sachairi would not have believed capable of misdeeds, has become pregnant. She cites the marriage bar as an excuse and refuses to name the father. This throws Sachairi into a crisis of conscience, wondering if he can still truly discern the will of God. It is into this vacuum of decision that The Black Foreigner steps, taking advantage of Sachairi’s hesitancy to confront him about the burning of the heather at the neighbouring village in preparation for the sheep.

Sachairi’s discomfiture is compounded by a meeting with Fearchar in which the poet questions him concerning doctrine, “Poetry and music are sinful, we say – yet with poetry and music a man improves himself in his nature it seems…. How is it that a sin can be experienced as a good?” and in which he concedes that the light of the spirit could be withdrawn from one of the Elect without his knowing it, that one of the Elect could be mistaken as to whether a thing is according to the will of God or not. This compounds Saichari’s indecision and he withdraws from interaction with the community giving Byars the opportunity to carry out his evictions unhindered.

In that long conversation Fearchar posits the relation between two neighbouring nations, long in conflict as the larger tried in vain to conquer and subject the smaller. “The big nation understands at last that it is no use to try to conquer them by force of arms. Suppose they try another way … and by some trick get power over the smaller nation and unite them to themselves. And so they will get from pretended friendship and a trick what they could never win by war and arms.”

He names it. “England. There is a nation that would never rest – never until she had taken away our freedom ….. Now she is more subtle, for Cunning is her name. Now she comes with feigned friendship and with lying promises and gold for our traitors she is able to obtain it, and our liberty is at an end.” For Fearchar the adoption of the English language by those who did so meant they became English, indistinguishable from true Englishmen.

It is within these passages that are laid out Mac Colla’s concerns, the nature of Man’s relationship to God, the repressions inherent in Calvinism, and the replacement of Gaelic culture by this alien one. Concerns not entirely absent from the Scottish novel in general.

It is as a novel, though, that there is something lacking in And the Cock Crew. The characters seem too designed to illustrate the sides to the conflict to have substance as people in their own right. The incidents of cottage burning and removal of people from their homes and livelihoods, harrowing as they may have been, are not shown to us from their victims’ perspective, only from afar, or by others in their aftermath and so their impact is lessened somewhat.

Still, someone had to undertake the task of representing in fiction the brutal upheaval of the way of life of an ancient and hard done by people. Not that that will ever stop such things from happening.

Pedant’s corner:- Crew (that would be ‘crowed’ in English. Even in Scots I have never heard crew as the preterite of crow,) “a heavy hammer leaning leaningly against the anvil” (in what other manner does something lean?) “was caught at unawares” (was caught unawares.) In the list of Canongate Classics at the end of the book the author’s name is misspelled as Fiona.

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante

Book Three of The Neapolitan Novels. Middle Time.

Europa Editions, 2015, 411 p, including vii p Index of Characters and Notes on the Events of the Earlier Volumes. Translated from the Italian Storia di chi fugge e di di chi resta, (Edizioni E/O, 2013,) by Ann Goldstein.

This book carries on the tale of the life of Elena Greco, friend to Lila Cerullo, here following Elena into marriage and motherhood and illuminating Italian life in the late sixties/early seventies. Her husband is Pietro Airota, from a relatively well to do and influential family. The contrast between his background and hers, his atheism (which Elena shares) and her family’s traditionalism is illustrated when they visit Naples pre-marriage. On this visit, an acquaintance in Naples makes references to the dirty pages in her novel, whose publication came in the previous book, as being brave (but also true.) The novel itself, even the fact she left, would be enough to make her different but those pages mark her out, stamp her in the eyes of some of those she left behind as unworthy, tainted, all but a whore. Then a piece on industrial conditions in the sausage factory where Lila works is accepted by the newspaper L’Unità and brings her more attention/notoriety.

Married sex is a revelation for Elena. Though not a virgin, she had not had sex with her husband before the wedding and he is, to say the least, an unsympathetic lover. The birth of her first daughter, Adele, later pet-named Dede, brings the crushing responsibility of motherhood; the baby is unable to feed properly, her husband retreats into his work. Elena’s inability, and his reluctance, to cope requires the employment of a housekeeper/nanny. The novel Elena cobbles together in these circumstances is unpublishable, the lifeless articles she submits to L’Unità rejected. A second baby, another daughter, Elisa, is less trouble.

This was a turbulent time in Italy, with political violence referenced many times here. (As it also was in Europe; Rudi Dutschke and Daniel Cohn-Bendit are given a mention.) I did wonder how the political discussions and attitudes here (not to mention the atheism though that is more skated over) went down with Ferrante’s US readers as the left-wing leanings of most of Elena’s circle are fairly pronounced. Perhaps it is outdone by the feminism she comes to feel – both practical in her marriage situation and theoretical in the discussions she has with other women – especially in her writing, “no-one knew better than I did what it meant to make your own head masculine so that it would be accepted by the culture of men: I had done it, I was doing it,” which would certainly strike a chord.

Ferrrante’s Neapolitan Quartet has been widely discussed as a dissection of female friendship yet for many pages at the start of this instalment Lila is all but unmentioned. However, Elena is called to her side when Lila becomes ill (worn down by working at the sausage factory) and immediately goes to succour her and the blanks in Lila’s life in the interim are filled in. From then on, apart from a crucial incident where a decision by Lila reveals her in her complexity as almost unknowable, certainly unpredictable, they communicate mainly by telephone. Lila and Enzo, the man she lives with, teach themselves computing and begin to make a niche for themselves in the nascent computer industry. The dissolving margins which Lila once mentioned to Elena, when she feels people round her becoming insubstantial (and which may be the key to her personality) are here referred to only once.

As in the foregoing Neapolitan novels there is a density here of apparently lived experience, a proliferation of detail, a fecundity of (re)construction, a layering of a life apparently recollected. As if to comment on this Lila tells Elena after her confusion over that decision of Lila’s, “But when do people ever speak truthfully and when do things ever happen unexpectedly? You know better than I that it’s all a fraud and that one thing follows another and then another.”

The ambiguity of the friendship (of all friendships?) is addressed when Elena herself tells us at the book’s crux, “I had wanted to become something – here was the point – only because I was afraid that Lila would become someone and I would stay behind ….. I had to start again to become, but for myself, as an adult, outside of her.” The relevance of Nino Sattore – with whom Elena has been besotted since her teenage years but who had an affair with Lila in Book Two – to this epiphany is not unravelled by the book’s ending which mercifully has less of the cliffhanger element the first two instalments had but which still leaves Elena’s life situation unresolved.

Pedant’s corner:- Marirosa (elsewhere always Mariarosa,) legitimatized (legitimised,) “and thought, She was once a pretty girl” (context suggests ‘and I thought, She was once a pretty girl’,) missing question marks at the end of sentences which are questions, “rather than aiming Stefano and his money” (aiming at Stefano.) “And at least Enzo in front of him, in the factory, women worn out by the work, by humiliations, by domestic obligations no less than Lila was.” (as a sentence that is missing something which would make it clear what it was meant to be saying,) “secretary of the union local” (in English ‘of the local union’ is more idiomatic,) “as if” three times in four lines, Vesuvio (x 2, usually ‘Vesuvius’,) waked (woken,) insured (ensured,) “men with drooping mustaches [sic] and a cloth cap on their head” (and cloth caps on their heads,) parallelopipeds (my dictionary categorises this variant spelling of parallelepipeds as ‘improper’.)

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