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The Courilof Affair by Irène Némirovsky

Vintage, 2008, 174 p. Translated from the French L’Affaire Courilof, (Éditions Grasset, 1933,) by Sandra Smith.

The Courilof Affair cover

The narrative here has a prologue set in Nice in the 1920s which acts as a framing device but the subsequent chapters are delivered to us in the form of Léon M’s memoirs. The son of would-be Russian revolutionaries, Léon was brought up in exile, and assigned by the Revolutionary Committee to kill the Russian Education Secretary, Courilof, a notoriously harsh man, known as the Killer Whale. To enable this and to worm himself into Courilof’s household he takes up a position, under the name Marcel Legrand, as Courilof’s physician. At once warming to his charge and disgusted by him, “Legrand” has a ringside seat at the ins and outs of the higher echelons of the pre-revolutionary system, watching Courilof fall from favour as a result of his marriage to his second wife (who has a past) before his restoration following a scandal involving his successor.

Despite Courilof’s elevated position he nevertheless has the capacity to observe, “‘An ordinary man has the right to be greedy, because he knows that otherwise he would starve to death. But these people who have everything – money, friends in high places, property – they never have enough! I just don’t understand it.’” Plus ça change.

This is the only one of Némirovsky’s novels to be set more or less entirely in her native Russia – and (almost certainly non-coincidentally) it is the most concerned with politics and the usage of power. Affairs of the heart are incidental here as it is the wielding of, and manœvring to maintain, influence, and the single-mindedness of those opposing the regime which are the book’s main themes. Léon’s subsequent acts as an instrument of the revolutionary government – a far more implacable proposition than Courilof ever was – are related briefly and quite off-handedly, simply as things that had to be done. Léon’s fall from grace is glossed over, we never quite find out why he ends up living in exile – though we can guess.

This isn’t Némirovsky at the peak of her powers but it is an interesting examination of the mind-set of would-be revolutionaries eager to be seen to be activists (the assassination requires as big an audience as possible) but more in thrall to the idea than the action – as well as, in Courilof, the exigencies of assiduous service to a monarch who doesn’t warrant devotion.

Pedant’s Corner:- “the Pierre and Paul Fortress” (usually Peter and Paul Fortress in English,) hung (hanged, x3, though there was a ‘hanged’ and one of the ‘hung’s on page 168,) Nevsky river, (it’s the Neva river that flows through St Petersburg,) “fishermen ….must have the same feeling as they contemplate their dazzling catch” (catches, surely, since its fishermen, plural,) sterling (as a fish. Is there such a creature?) “A great crowd of people were silently listening to music” (a crowd was silently listening,) Léon as Legrand is referred to in speech as ‘Monsieur Legrand’ (the English would be Mister Legrand, but then back in the day educated Russians spoke French and the speaker thought ‘Legrand’ knew no Russian so would be addressing him in that language,) hiccoughs (hiccups, it’s not – and never has been – a cough of any sort,) “I wanted to lay down right there” (lie down.) In the translator’s Afterword: Camus’ (Camus’s, x2.)

Winter by Ali Smith

Hamish Hamilton, 2017, 328 p

 Winter cover

The novel starts with a reference to Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, “God was dead: to begin with,” but is set around a curious Christmas visit to his mother Sophia’s home by Arthur just after his girlfriend Charlotte has left him but he wishes to disguise that fact. Accordingly he hires a woman he sees at a bus-stop to pretend to be Charlotte. His mother has been neglecting herself, and has no food in the house so Arthur summons his aunt Iris to rescue the situation. Since Iris, a lefty, and Sophia, a staunch Tory, have been at loggerheads – indeed not speaking to each other – for years this leads to some strained conversations, not least when Charlotte’s impersonator rather lets the cat out of the bag and reveals her name is Lux – and that she hails from Croatia.

In the incidents from the sisters’ lives we are regaled with a short history of the Greenham Common protests – what happened at Greenham changed the world Iris says. She is also less than pleased with the prevailing climate in the country, “‘The furious grumpy faces, like caricatures on some terrible sitcom on TV. England’s green unpleasant land,’ and complains of the Prime Minister’s background, “what kind of vicar, what kind of church, brings up a child to think that words like very and hostile and environment and refugees can ever go together in any response to what happens to people in the real world.’” The there is, “Google. Not so long ago it was only the mentally deranged , the unworldly pedants, the imperialists and the naivest of schoolchildren who believed that encyclopaediae gave you any equivalence for the actual real world, or any real understanding of it. ….. But now the world trusts search engines without a thought.”

Lux compares modern life to Shakespeare’s Cymbeline “it’s like the people in the play are living in the same world but separate from each other, like their worlds have somehow become disjointed or broken off each other’s worlds.” Later we find, “She is explaining to him how it is that she can be from somewhere else, and have been brought up somewhere else again, but still sound so like she grew up here. ‘It takes hard work. Real graft and subtlety. It’s a full-on education being from somewhere else in your country right now.’” Smith is also careful to give Sophia’s points of view but for some reason they didn’t strike much of a chord with me. Maybe it didn’t really with Smith either. In a coda, reflecting on Trump’s “Merry Christmas again” speech she tells us, “in the middle of summer it’s winter,” and adds, “God help us, every one.”

Like most of Smith’s novels there seems a sort of – I can only say coldness – at Winter’s centre. Her Seasons sequence (I reviewed Autumn here) was supposedly conceived as a response to the EU referendum result. The relevance of that to the content of Autumn was muted but here, while it is not the main preoccupation of the characters (Charlotte’s social media trolling of Arthur is a sort of running joke in the narrative,) it is undeniably the sea-swell under their surface interactions. And it is all presented with that unjustified right margin Smith’s books always seem to have.

Pedant’s corner:- “Oh for Christ sake” (Christ’s,) “each other’s worlds” (strictly, each others’ worlds.)

The Map of Love by Ahdaf Soueif

Bloomsbury, 2000, 540 p (including xii p Glossary of Arabic terms.)

The Map of Love cover

This novel is set in two time lines, the Egypt of its present day, the late 1990s, and of the same country in the 1900s. The present day sections are told from the viewpoint of Amal al-Gamrawi whose brother, ‘Omar, a famous musician, has fallen into a relationship with US citizen Isabel Parkman, but its main thrust comes via the letters and journal of Isabel’s great grandmother, Lady Anna Winterbourne, which relate to her experiences in Egypt almost a century before. Isabel’s discovery of a trunk containing her grandmother’s letters was recognized by ‘Omar as a family connection and he encouraged Isabel to take them to his sister in Egypt for transcription. While in Egypt Lady Anna had formed a mutual attachment to Amal’s great uncle, Sharif Basha al-Baroudi, an Egyptian patriot, and married him; much to the dismay of all but two of the English contingent in Egypt at the time. Anna’s letters and journal track the course of that love affair and marriage. Isabel is their descendant and so related to Amal and ‘Omar. Some sections of the narrative are Amal’s imaginings of incidents from the past, others are seen via the viewpoint of Layla, Sharif’s sister.

Soueif wrote this in English but in some respects the novel feels like a translation as its immersion in Egyptian culture is total, though the Western perspective is acknowledged. But it is Egyptian concerns and history that dominate. “Egypt, mother of civilisation, dreaming herself through the centuries. Dreaming us all, her children: those who stay and work for her and complain of her, and those who leave and yearn for her and blame her with bitterness for driving them away.” (Yet, barring ‘the mother of civilisation’ and with just the name changed, that quote could apply to almost any country. It certainly does to Scotland.)

There are multiple resonances between the two times. The trouble with contemporary Israelis in Palestine – “putting things on the ground that will be impossible to dismantle,” ….. “It’s either Israeli domination – backed by America – or the Islamic radicals. Take your pick,” is mirrored by events in the 1900s when 50,000 Russian Jews escaping from persecution wanted to settle in the Holy Land. “Europe simply does not see the people of the countries it wishes to annex – and when it does , it sees them in accordance with its own old and accepted definitions: backward people , lacking rational abilities and subject to religious fanaticism.” At one point Layla says of the de facto ruler of Egypt, “‘Lord Cromer is a patriot and he serves his country well. We understand that. Only he should not pretend that he is serving Egypt.’” Cromer’s attitude ignores that, “We in Egypt have been proud of our history; proud to belong to the land that was the first mother of civilization. In time she passed the banner of leadership to Greece and then Rome, and from there it reverted to the lands of Islam until in the seventeenth century it was taken hold of by Europe.” As one Egyptian says to Isabel, in a phrase that perhaps prefigures and goes some way to explain the attack on the twin towers only a year after the novel was published, “all the Americans I meet are good people, but your government’s foreign policy is so bad. It’s not good, you know, for a country to be hated by so many people.”

The politics may be an essential background but it is not the focus. That is the love story between Anna and Sharif and the ever fascinating nature of human interactions. Soueif’s ability as a novelist to portray these is not in doubt. The tapestry triptych which Anna weaved on the loom Sharif bought for her and of which one part had disappeared in the intervening years is perhaps a little too obvious a metaphor, though, and I did have a reservation at the introduction of a further possible twist in the net of relationships here, a thread picked at but not truly resolved.

Nevertheless this is a very well written, engaging novel, shortlisted for the 1999 Booker Prize, which, while not, quite, in the absolutely highest class is certainly not far off.

Pedant’s corner:- Abd el-Nasser (in the epigraph it was ‘Abd el-Nasser,) hostess’ (hostess’s,) occasional unnecessary spaces after quotation marks, the odd missing comma before a piece of direct speech, “more that an eccentric Englishwoman” (more than,) Selfridges’ foodhall (I know the shop is now named Selfridges but it was founded by a Harry Gordon Selfridge as Selfridge & Co so its possessive should always have been Selfridge’s, therefore Selfridge’s foodhall,) staunched (stanched.)

Best Reading of 2018

Listed below in order of reading. 16 in total; 7 by Scottish writers, 4 SF or Fantasy (+ 1 non-fiction about SF,) 3 in translation, 10 by men, 6 by women:-

Living Nowhere by John Burnside
All Our Worldly Goods by Irène Némirovsky
Science Fiction: A Literary History Edited by Roger Luckhurst
The Fifth Season by N K Jemisin
The Black Book by Orhan Pamuk
The Gathering Night by Margaret Elphinstone
When They Lay Bare by Andrew Greig
The Great Chain of Unbeing by Andrew Crumey
Hame by Annalena McAfee
I Remember Pallahaxi by Michael G Coney
Not so Quiet …. stepdaughters of war by Helen Zenna Smith
Memories of My Melancholy Whores by Gabriel García Márquez
Time Was by Ian McDonald
The Shipbuilders by George Blake
Mr Alfred M.A. by George Friel
Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively

Elephant Walk by Robert Standish

NEL, 1968, 252 p. First published 1948.

Elephant Walk cover

The Elephant Walk of the title is a very prosperous tea (once coffee, till a disease blighted the crop) plantation in Sri Lanka (Ceylon as was) whose founder, Tom Carey, built “the Big Bungalow” across a traditional elephant trail. Despite being dead for years Carey’s attitudes and prescriptions for life still dominate life in the bungalow – as mediated through the main servant Appuhamy (who periodically talks to the old master at his graveside) and with the parrot Erasmus ensuring Carey’s voice is still heard regularly – with open house for other local planters. Carey’s almost middle–aged son, George, takes a trip to England. (Here, in an incidental conversation with a pair fascinated by Buddhism, “George … remarked that the only Buddhist priest he had ever come in contact with had seemed to prefer small boys to mysticism.” Some things are universal and timeless it would seem.) George is attracted by the charms of Ruth Lakin; chiefly her ability at tennis. He soon proposes and Ruth seizes eagerly at her chance for a more comfortable existence.

Back in Ceylon the presence of a woman in the Big Bungalow puts all sorts of noses out of joint, while George’s drinking puts a strain on the marriage. An accident in which George breaks his leg throws Ruth into closer contact with George’s assistant Geoffrey Wilding. The Sinhalese plantation workers soon infer, wrongly to begin with, that their working relationship has improper aspects, but the seeds for an eternal triangle have been sown. Once the relationship has been consummated Ruth finds herself in thrall to her feelings for Wilding.

The advent of the Great War throws a spanner into their lives. Without knowing he is the father of Ruth’s unborn child Wilding leaves for Europe and news eventually comes he is missing, presumed dead. Ruth resolves to make the best of things. Wilding has been captured though and escapes to Holland. His return to Ceylon precipitates the book’s, and Ruth’s, crisis, not helped by the fact that Wilding’s war experiences have changed him.

The web of character relationships here is complex, and each has his or her own motivations. The oddnesses and assumptions of colonial life are well depicted. Appuhamy’s devotion to having things just so – as they have always been that way even if extravagantly wasteful – his acceptance of minor change to avoid dismissal, the jealousies of the beautiful Rayna, a Sinhalese outcast girl whom Appuhamy procures in an attempt to distract Wilding from Ruth. Standish’s desire to portray the Big Bungalow as a character in its own right doesn’t quite work though and while the occasional foray into the thoughts of the bull elephant injured while navigating the trail when the bungalow was being built are necessary for plot and dénouement reasons they do not accord with what knowledge of elephants I thought I possessed. (Only remembering the bungalow when approaching it? A bull elephant leading a herd rather than being solitary? Do Asian elephants differ in these regards from African ones?)

Standish didn’t have pretensions, there’s no fine writing here, but it’s a good solid piece of fiction.

Pedant’s corner:- strategem (stratagem, spelled correctly later.) “George’s attentiveness and solicitude was impeccable” (attentiveness and solicitude were.) “‘Blame then?’” (Blame them,) “his little brain” (of a bull elephant? Big brain I should think,) “two whiskies-and-sodas” (two whiskies-and-soda: at least Standish spared us “whisky-and-sodas”,) “‘I like to to be exclusive’” (only one “to” needed,) “‘it does no look much now’” (does not look,) at one point George Carey makes a comment on information which the reader already knows but he hasn’t been told.

On Green Dolphin Street by Sebastian Faulks

Hutchinson, 2001, 345 p.

Love, sex, and death, again. Literary fiction doesn’t seem to stray far from those. Though I suppose there isn’t that much sex here, and death is mostly off-stage. Set in the late 1950s as they turn to the 60s, the love is that between Mary van der Linden, sojourning in Washington DC with her diplomat husband Charlie (whose career has stalled somewhat, perhaps because he is too fond of the bottle) and journalist Frank Renzo who is making a slow return after disfavour in the McCarthy years.

The book does describe the progress of what I assume is supposed to be a great love affair but unlike in Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger I didn’t really feel it, was never convinced. When Mary states her feelings for Frank they more or less come out of the blue as far as the reader is concerned. (His affections – or perhaps I should say intentions – were discernible from the outset.)

To add a bit of colour incidents from the characters’ earlier lives are incorporated into the narrative – Mary’s first lover, who died in the Second World War, Frank and Charlie’s almost forgotten meeting at Dien Bien Phu – as are contemporary events, particularly the first Kennedy-Nixon TV debate and Charlie’s breakdown on a visit to Moscow which sharpens the tale with a dose of Cold Wear paranoia. And everybody smokes like a lum.

I remember the author’s earlier novel Birdsong with some affection. On Green Dolphin Street, while readable enough, is no Birdsong

I did though learn that there is a Dumbarton Street in Washington DC!

Pedant’s corner:- USian usages – fender, hat-check girl, laundromat, elevator, the fall, bake sale, sidewalk etc – but aluminium not aluminum and railways [sic] sleepers not railroad ties. Otherwise; Commonweath war cemetery (at the time it would have been an Imperial war cemetery,) “sluiced it down” (twice in the space of a page or so is once too many,) croci (crocus isn’t from Latin, so crocuses,) “under the instructions of a man with a crew-cut called Don Hewitt” (why does his hair-do have a name? A minor edit would have got rid of this,) “which even in this light she could see where shot with blood” (were shot,) on to (onto,) railways sleepers (railway sleepers,) sprung (sprang.)

Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively

Andre Deutsch, 1987, 211 p.

Moon Tiger cover

Claudia Hampton, a professional historian and, though unmarried, mother of Lisa, is on her deathbed. The doctor mentally notes that birth and an earlier miscarried child. While various important people in her life come and go at her bedside Claudia’s thoughts roam over her life. Her reminiscences are presented in the first person but sometimes scenes (even the same ones) are given to us in the third person from a different viewpoint. Claudia tells us, “I’ve always thought a kaleidoscopic view might be an interesting heresy…. Chronology irritates me…. everything happens at once.”

She recognises her inadequacy as a parent and is pleased her daughter is not overly gifted, “Intelligence is always a disadvantage. Parental hearts should sink at the first signs of it.” The two most important of her relationships were those with her brother Gordon and with Tom Southern, the lover she met on a trip up to near the front during her stint in Cairo as a War Correspondent in World War 2. Love came on her as a surprise, “She has reached the ripe old age of thirty-one without knowing this particular derangement. For derangement is surely what it is; only by stern physical effort can she keep herself from looking at him, touching him.” This being wartime the affair ends abruptly. The child she miscarried was of course Tom’s.

So. Love, sex and death, here we are again. But Lively has conjured a wonderful book from those ingredients, well worth its Booker Prize win in 1987. Her treatment of the desert war is full of incidental detail rather than grand sweep and is more immediate for that fact. Tom tells her, “‘An astonishing amount of piety goes on out here. You’d be surprised. The Lord is frequently invoked. He’s on our side, by the way, you’ll be glad to hear – or at least it’s taken for granted that he is,’” and that, “we will win the war” – “‘in the last resort we have greater resources. Wars have little to do with justice. Or valour or sacrifice or the other things traditionally associated with them. War has been much misrepresented, believe me. It’s had a disgracefully good press.’”

Lively’s knowledge of Egypt is put to good use (the Moon Tiger is a green coil that slowly burns all night, repelling mosquitoes) and the casual racist attitudes of the time are noted. “It was always mildly satisfying to see British racial complacency matched if not excelled by French xenophobia; the contempt with which Madame Charlot and her friends could invest the word arabe was more pungent even than the careless English ‘Gyppo’ or the curious pejorative use of ‘native’. It made us seem positively liberal-minded,” yet Claudia’s reflections on life conclude, “unless I am a part of everything I am nothing.”

There is more than a hint of the unusually close about the sibling relationship. “Until I was in my late twenties I never knew a man who interested me as much as Gordon did…. I measured each man I met against him, and they fell short. I tested myself for the frisson that Gordon induced, and it was not there.” This is underlined by the thought, “Incest is closely related to narcissism.” Plus we have, “I love you, she thinks. Always have. More than I’ve ever loved anyone, bar one. That word is overstretched; it cannot be made to do service for so many different things – love of children, love of friends, love of God, carnal love and cupidity and saintliness.”

Lively portrays very well the heightened awareness, the stark but total recall, of a passionate relationship. The descriptions of the remainder of Claudia’s life after Tom’s death – eventful and readable though they are – are subtly flatter. Her complicated relationship with Lisa’s father, Jasper, is also handled perfectly.

This is literary fiction at its best.

Pedant’s corner:- waggons (wagons,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, maw (as a mouth. It’s a stomach,) “The bridges wear necklaces of coloured lights; all along the banks the houseboats are ablaze, glowing against the dark, swirling patterned water” (this was in wartime Cairo. Surely it must have had a blackout. There was one in Alexandria. Then again, Lively was there herself during the war,) staunches (stanches.)

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

Europa, 2012, 328 p. Translated from the Italian L’amica geniale by Ann Goldstein.

Book One: Childhood, Adolescence

My Brilliant Friend cover

Ferrante’s writing – especially her Neapolitan Quartet, of which this is the first – has been attracting a lot of attention if not hype. The mystery surrounding her identity – Ferrante is a pseudonym whose real-life counterpart has not revealed herself – is one of the elements in that I’m sure.

This volume is the tale of two childhood friends growing up in the back streets of Naples – not quite two children dressing in rags but poor certainly. Our narrator is Elena Greco, daughter of a porter, her friend is Lila Cerullo, the shoemaker’s daughter. Lila is gifted intellectually – at least according to Elena – but does not progress at school, as she decides not to. (Not that her parents would have allowed her to.) Elena is given every opportunity by her teacher who persuades her parents to allow her to continue her education beyond the normal for her milieu.

While still young Lila reveals to Elena the conspiracy of silence about before, before the war, before they were born, seeing all her elders as complicit. Elena realises, “Without knowing it, they continued it, they were immersed in the things of before, and we kept them inside us, too.”

Through Elena, Ferrante is good on the absurdities and embarrassments of puberty, the lack of control over the body and of how others perceive you. In time and in contrast to Elena, Lila begins to exert a magnetic attraction on all males. She is well able to defend herself (and Elena) against any unwanted advances however. She throws herself and her talents into designing shoes but her father has no faith in their ability to sell and scorns the possibility. Elena’s continuing education and the necessary separation as the new higher schools are across the city gradually puts a distance between the pair.

An element of fantasy – undeveloped in this volume – appeared when on New Year’s Eve 1959 Lila experienced what she will later describe to Elena as dissolving margins. To her the outlines of people suddenly dissolved, disappeared. How much this contributes to Ferrante’s overall story arc I can’t say but her story-telling in general I found irritating. There was too much telling not enough showing, too much concentration on boring minutiae – every test score Elena ever got seems to be included. In addition there were many cases in which the characterisation was lacking. There is an index of characters – inserted before the novel proper – so that you can tell them apart by name but many of them, the young males especially, do not stand out from each other on the page. I felt too that there was a stretching towards significance in phrases like, “there are no gestures, words, or sighs that do not contain the sum of all the crimes that human beings have committed and commit,” and “‘When there is no love, not only the life of the people becomes sterile but the life of cities,’” which actually don’t bear scrutiny. Moreover the book ends on a point of imminent conflict. Yes, there are three more instalments of Ferrante’s quartet to go but this still felt like a breach of the contract between writer and reader.

I would agree that as a social document of a time and a place, of certain attitudes, My Brilliant Friend is interesting enough but despite that “cliffhanger” I wasn’t moved to seek out further instalments with any alacrity.

Pedant’s corner:- The text has been translated into USian. Otherwise; “an anti-gas mask” (this may be a literal translation of the Italian, but the English term is simply, gas mask.) “To not be second.” (Not to be second,) pubis (is the pubic bone not the pubic area,) knickers (conveys a different meaning to a British reader than the knickerbockers or plus-fours I took it was intended,) an useful (technically correct I suppose, but not a common usage,) Aeneas’ (Aeneas’s,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech.

Identity by Milan Kundera

faber and faber, 1999, 155 p. Translated from the French L’identité (Gallimard, 1998?) by Linda Asher.

Identity cover

After the loss of a baby from a previous marriage, the constant refrain from her husband and his family that another child would set things right Chantal left to take up with Jean-Marc, who feels he only engages with the world through her but is fearful that is only an illusion and without her he’d lose any connection to the world. Her realisation that, ‘Men don’t turn to look at me any more,’ is the starting point of the couple’s estrangement. She begins to receive anonymous letters, keeping them from Jean-Marc, and imagines who might be their writer. Eventually their contents contain too many details of her activities to be the work of someone who does not know her well. The confrontation that ensues sees Chantal take a trip to London, in part to escape.

In its early stages this book reminded me of the work of John Banville but then it took a left turn into a phantasia of unlikely occurrences which it is a tribute to Kundera’s skill are nevertheless entered seamlessly without any jarring to the reader.

Identity, the awareness of self, is of course the theme of the book. “Remembering our past, carrying it with us always, may be the necessary requirement for maintaining the wholeness of the self.” Saying friends help to bolster this sense, Jean-Marc calls into evidence Dumas’s four musketeers and claims friendship is, “proof of the existence of something stronger than ideology, than religion, than the nation,” but Chantal tells him. “Friendship is a problem for men. It’s their romanticism. Not ours.”

Chantal works at an advertising agency. One of her colleagues declares, “‘Only a very small minority really enjoys sex.’” When challenged, he adds, ‘If someone interrogates you on your sex life, are you going to tell the truth?….. while everyone may covet the erotic life everyone also hates it, as the source of their troubles, their frustrations, their yearnings, their complexes, their sufferings.’” Sex is never far from the surface in a Kundera book. Here advertising is characterised as, “Toilet paper, nappies, detergent, food. That is man’s sacred circle, and our mission is not only to discover it, seize it, and map it, but to make it beautiful, to transform it into song.” We are, “condemned to food and coitus and toilet paper.”

Identity is a slight volume at 155 pages but packs a lot in. However, the simile in, “her voice wavering like the lament of a woman raped,” strikes an off-note.

Pedant’s corner:- Patroclus’ (Patroclus’s,) Alexandre Dumas’ (Dumas’s,) unfriendlike (is that a translation of a French word for which there is no direct English equivalent?) “an burdensome thing” (a burdensome thing, surely? Or was it a peculiar emphasis in the French?) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, Britannicus’ (Britannicus’s,) “to épater les bourgeois” (not translated, but italicised,) a curious shift to past tense for one paragraph in a section otherwise rendered in the present.

The Corn King and the Spring Queen by Naomi Mitchison

Virago, 1983, 710 p. First published 1931.

he Corn King and the Spring Queen cover

This book has been described as “the best historical novel of the twentieth century.” Perhaps informed by James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough, as an attempt to inhabit the mindset pertaining to an ancient belief system it is certainly admirable. Yet while readable, and a must for Mitchison completists, it is, however, not without its flaws, which are indeed acknowledged by the author’s afterword to this edition, published more than fifty years after its original appearance.

We start in the Black Sea area in the settlement of Marob where the young Erif Der is a practitioner of magic (she calls herself a witch) but this is actually a relative commonplace in the community. Erif’s father, Harn Der, wants her to marry Marob’s Corn King, Tarrik (who is part Greek and also has the name Charmantides) in order to nullify Tarrik’s powers with her own and so allow Tarrik to be replaced. Tarrik has fallen under the influence of the Stoic Sphaeros, and her enchantments are not enough. The fertility rituals are depicted comprehensively (and later contrasted with those of Egypt) their importance to the community’s functioning emphasised. Eventually Erif falls in love with Tarrik, but under Sphaeros’s influence he decides to take a trip to Greece to where she accompanies him. This entails a change of viewpoint as in Section Two we engage with the inhabitants of Sparta before the arrival of the barbarians from Marob.

The first six sections alternate between Marob and Greece thereafter we remain following the fortunes of Spartan King Kleomenes, even into exile in Egypt, until the final epilogue chapter, set in Marob but still concerned with Kleomenes as it rounds off the tale of his legacy. The Greek and Egyptian sections make up well over half the book and so make the title a little misleading. The book at times reads as more of a history of Kleomenes than of the lives of Erif Der or Tarrik.

Mitchison’s characters display a matter of fact attitude to sex which might have been unusual in print ninety years ago, yet when Kleomenes refers to “nigger-boxers” – meaning black pugilists – the book’s origins in what are now distant times are apparent.

Phrases such as, “‘When things turn simple, women have to give up much more than men. Because they live in shadow, by mystery,’” show that feminism is by no means a late twentieth century invention. That the passage of time may provide a different perspective is illustrated by, “With time and questionings, rights became wrongs and wrongs rights.”

Notwithstanding the alien belief systems Mitchison’s characterisation is excellent, Erif’s brother Berris’s infatuation with the Greek girl Philylla a particular high point. These are recognisable human beings. It is the book’s structure that is off-kilter. There are in fact two stories here, though intertwined, Erif’s (Tarrik is off-stage for more than half the novel) and that of Kleomenes, who in his freeing of the helots comes across as a bit of a socialist before their time. Maybe they would have been better split into two separate volumes.

Pedant’s corner:- “By and bye” (numerous instances, it is – and always has been – by and by,) “the oddest thing about it were his bright brown eyes” (the oddest thing was his eyes,) disk-throwing (disc-throwing,) Sphaeros’ (Sphaeros’s,) span (x2, spun,) Agis’ (Agis’s,) Panteus’ (Panteus’s,) Lycurgus (elswhere Lycurgos,) sewed (sewn, as in the line above!) “none of them were very sure” (none of them was very sure,) “the Achæan League .. begin to be afraid of Sparta” (the league begins to be afraid,) waggons (I prefer wagons,) Plowing Eve, plow, plow-beam, plowed, plowing (yet plough-ox,) Disdallis’ (Disdallis’s,) “aren’t I?” (did the ancient Greeks actually use this ungrammatical formulation? Besides Mitchison is Scottish. “Amn’t I?” is more grammatical and the natural Scottish usage,) Agiatis’ (Agiatis’s,) Phoebis’ (Phoebis’s,) Apelles’ (Apelles’s,) “none of the traders know Plato from Pythagoras” (none of the traders knows,) slue himself round (slew,) Antigonos’ (Antigonos’s,) Kleomenes’ (Kleomenes’s,) “this intolerable burden o planning” (of planning, the “o” occurred at a line’s end. Make of that what you will,) Krateskleia (elsewhere Kratesikleia,) stronglier (usually expressed as “more strongly”,) Themisteas’ (Themisteas’s,) Berris’ (Berris’s.) “The party in Sparta that hated him and his revolution prepare to welcome..” (the party prepares,) Agathokles’ (Agathokles’s,) Sosibios’ (Sosibios’s,) a missing comma before the start of a piece of dialogue, Nikomedes’ (Nikomedes’s,) a missing start quote mark at the beginning of a piece of dialogue, “a whole sleeping part of her had awoke,” (awoken,) Neolaidas’ (Neolaidas’s,) “none of the crowd were in the least willing” (none was willing,) “like polished sards” (shards?)

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