About Me

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I live in Bedford, England. Having retired from teaching; I am now a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Threshold Concepts in the context of A-level Physics. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. I have also recently become a keen playgoer to London Fringe Theatre. I enjoy mostly classics and I read the playscripts and add those to the blog. I am a member of Bedford Writers' Circle. See their website here: http://bedford-writers.co.uk/ Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Friday, 30 September 2016

"The Buried Giant" by Kazuo Ishiguro

Axl and Beatrice, two Britons living in a rural village in a land full of mist, an old couple full of forgetfulness, decide to travel to their son's village; they can't quite remember but something may have happened which is why he left but they are sure that he will welcome them and they can go and live with him.

Beatrice has a pain in her side so they decide to go to a nearby Saxon village first to find a woman who is skilled in healing.

On the way they meet a strange boatman who tells them that he ferries people to an island where, usually, the people are quite alone. But sometimes, the boatman says, he ferries a couple across and, if they answer certain questions correctly, when they get to the island they will be company one for the other.

In the Saxon village they meet a Saxon warrior, Wistan, who is on a mission to kill a dragon, Querig, who makes the mist that is the source of all forgetting and a boy, Edwin, who has been injured after having been abducted by ogres. And then they meet Sir Gawain. We are firmly within the realm of myth and legend but what part did Axl play in all of this when he was young?

This is a book written with haunting lyrical beauty, mostly seen from the point of view of Axl although there are two episodes narrated by Sir Gawain, Edwin is given a section to narrate, and the final chapter is narrated by the boatman. Beatrice is a wonderful character, full of compassion and concern; her main goal is to have Axl with her after she is dead. None of the other characters match her in reality.

I found the penultimate section rather difficult. There seemed a lot of philosophy being discussed all of a sudden. The author's message seemed close to being an intruder.

Ishiguro also wrote When We Were Orphans, reviewed in this blog, and the brilliant Never Let Me Go, as well as The Remains of the Day and A Pale View of Hills and a number of other remarkable books. In fact he is a modern writing genius!

There is a standard story called the Hero's Quest. Classically it is a three act structure but since act 2 is separated into 2a and 2b, I like to think of it as four acts:

  • Act 1 'Separation' is set in the 'normal' world when an 'inciting incident' calls the hero to adventure. At first the hero refuses the call but then he (or she) meets a mentor and crosses the threshold into the Other world.
  • In Act 2 'Descent' the hero is tested and meets allies and enemies
  • The Ordeal, involving death and rebirth (usually symbolic or psychological), is at the very centre of the book.
  • Act 3 'Initiation' begins the long process of the road back. At some point the hero 'seizes the sword'. We are still in the Other world but at the end of Act 3 the hero crosses the threshold back into the normal world.
  • Act 4 'Return' involves some sort of resurrection experience as the climax of the book; finally the hero returns to reality with the magic potion, a better and wiser person.

Ishiguro's book sets out to conform to this paradigm: it starts off in a quasi-normal world, although already there are strange magical elements hovering around the fringes of normality. It flouts the convention because, at the end, they do not return to a normal world. Both Axl and Beatrice have to make the decision to travel to see their son, and they both act as curbs on one another. For Beatrice there is a strange meeting with a red-haired stranger, and the fact that she is nurturing some illness inside her body. Perhaps for Axl the decision is made when his wife is in trouble for having a candle. The community has decreed that they are too old to have a candle in the bedroom in case they spill it and set the place on fire but Beatrice says that this is "nothing but unkindness"; "We will not sit night after night in darkness." Bit of a metaphor there?

They set off, walking over the Great Plain and over the mound where the giant is buried, aware that this is a place of danger. A storm starts and they take shelter in a ruined villa where they meet a boatman and a woman with a rabbit in her hand. The boatman ferries souls to the land of the dead and the woman is a widow with a grudge: he took her husband years ago and will not take her too; furthermore, unless she can prove how close their relationship was, when she reaches the island of the dead she will be on her own and never meet her husband again. This acts as a warning to Beatrice: how can she answer the boatman's questions when her time comes given that their memories are so bad, with the mist of forgetfulness hanging over the land.

After the old couple have decided to travel they meet the boatman and an old woman. It is this meeting they meet Wistan and Edwin and Sir Gawain. And it is exactly at the halfway point that Axl and Beatrice learn the secret of the mist. This secret drives a new quest for the second part of the book, when they realise that there is something else that they have to do.

The mist is forgetfulness. It clouds our memories. This is good, because we cannot remember sadnesses and we become aware that there are episodes in Axl and Beatrice's earlier life that are perhaps best forgotten. One of the central questions of the book is whether forgetfulness can be a good thing.

I don't think that the mist is ever described in a positive way. Sir Gawain defends forgetfulness as a necessary part of achieving a peaceful society, in a world where reciprocity, retribution and revenge seem to be the norm. Axl can understand this argument (and it would appear that Axl has a past that he has been trying to bury, that he doesn't want remembered) but Beatrice disagrees. For her, forgetfulness threatens her chance to spend eternity with the man she loves. I suppose that Ishiguro is trying to make the distinction between a love which is contingent upon certain secrets never being revealed and a love that accepts imperfections.

But both Axl and Beatrice have buried the memory that their son is dead.

In Chapter Two, right at the beginning of their journey, Axl and Beatirce meet the boatman and an old woman. This is an important meeting because it gives Beatrice a reason for her quest: she wants to remember her life with Axl because the alternative is to face eternity alone. The old woman seems less important except as a warning that this is what might become of Beatrice if she does not succeed in their quest. I don't understand why she is so keen on killing the rabbit.

This book is a radical departure for Ishiguro, confirming that he refuses to be stereotyped by genre. He has moved boldly into the world of fantasy and given it his own twist.

There were moments when I felt that the book could have worked better. Discussing it with members of my reading group there was a clear disagreement as to whether the quest on which Axl and Beatrice had departed was to find their son or to recover their memories. This core confusion led to some weakening of the thrust of the plot. One reader felt that it meant that A & B were continually being side-tracked: if they wanted to find their son why did they keeping trying to achieve other goals. Another reader mused that this was a bit like life. I felt that there was a discontinuity when A & B come across the poisoned goat; another reader felt that the plot was full of such discontinuities as though Ishiguro had in mind a series of scenes he wanted to record but little overall purpose.

Two readers confessed they had great difficulty in finishing the book.

Nevertheless, I feel that the Ishiguro's brilliance showed in his wonderful characterisations and his beautiful scene-setting. I loved (and another reader hated) the minutely choreographed between Wistan and the solider that he kills, observed so carefully by Axl, showing Axl's understanding of warfare. I was particularly impressed by the way the two main characters were brought to vivid life and their love so delightfully rendered.

And there was confusion over why the book was called The Buried Giant. There is the giant's burial mound early on, and later there is a cairn to a giant, but giant's don't seem to figure greatly. Our reading group consensus was that memory was the giant buried in all of us. What do you think? Tell me on twitter @daja57

A marmite book perhaps.

October 2017; 362 pages




Thursday, 29 September 2016

"The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters" by Adam Nicolson

This book was loaned to me by my mate Fred who also loaned me 'A Time of Gifts' (see below). He's got good taste! I thought this was a brilliant book. Adam Nicolson writes beautifully and the content of what he writes is unbelievably interesting. It is that rare thing: a book which is better than the reviews quoted by the publisher.

Perhaps it is the scope of the book that is most astonishing. I thought it was about Homer. It is about chickens (which reached the Aegean from the Far East in about 500 BC, after Socrates, and were known as the 'Persian Bird' ;p 27) and language (the Greek word dedmeto comes from the Indo European damazo from which we get tame, domesticate and dominate; Homer also uses it for seduction (probably a euphemism for rape) and uses it in connection with "young girls, enemies, heifers and wives"; p 21); it even recounts the author's experience of homosexual rape (having lost his way in a Syrian desert a man held a knife to his throat: "He made me undress, holding the knife into the side of my neck as he did so ... I knelt in the dust as he raped me, a pitiable  little dog-like action from behind, the point of his knife jiggling in the side of my neck with his frantic movements ... I felt him coming over my thighs and buttocks. It all seemed entirely prosaic ... not anything that would raise my pulse ... I stood for longer than I knew in the shower"; pp 122 - 123).

He explores how the great Homeric epics were composed as oral poetry. They are in hexameters; "the fifth foot is usually a dactyl ... and the final foot is always a spondee"; there is a caesura somewhere in the line. In order to recite so many lines in such a relatively strict form, Homer made use of stock phrases (such as swift ships even when the ships are not swift at all). In a tour de force of analogy, Nicolson recounts an epic recited on the spot by a modern poet in Crete which tells of the kidnap of a Nazi general by Patrick Leigh Fermor (author of A Time of Gifts, another beautifully written book) during the Second World War: Tambakis (a real Cretan hero who had nothing to do with this particular operation) "goes to Herakleion and finds a beautiful girl there (he didn't). She is the secretary to the German general (he didn't have one) ... the German general ... whispering across the pillow, tells her hius plans (Of course he didn't).  ... The ambush is laid ... The Cretans stop Kaiseri's car, strip him naked (they didn't) , he begs for mercy for the sake of his children (he didn't, but this is a motif that usually appears at these moments in Cretan poetry) ... They arrive in Sfakia (they didn't) where the people try to kill Kaiseri (they didn't) before a submarine (it was a launch) sweeps him off to Egypt. Hitler is in despair (he probably was in June 1944, if for other reasons)." (p 92) In other words, everything is true except for the facts.

Nicolson attempts to find a historical context for Homer through a variety of routes. For example, he notes that Homer speaks of silver-riveted swords and helmets made from the tusks of boars; these are found in Mycenaean graces up to the sixteenth century BC. He notes that Homeric language stems, as do so many, from Proto Indo European and that this language has "no shared words for laurel, cypress or olive; this cannot have been a Mediterranean place. But cattle and sheep are both there. This is a milky, yoghurty existence" (p 153)  from which. with other evidence, he decides that the original Achaeans were cattle and sheep owning horse-riding nomads from the steppes between the Black and the Caspian Seas who were only lately arrived at the sea. (Presumably this is why Poseidon is God both of sea and horses; essentially he was the Olympian Secretary of State for Transport.) Homer is, of course, very keen on describing his heroes in terms of horses: Achilles is as fast as a horse and is told of his death by one of his horses. The Trojans sacrifice horses in the river Scamander. Aeneas has horses bred from some that Zeus owned. And the Trojans are defeated by a wooden horse. Even more excitingly (perhaps this just demonstrates the weird things that get me excited) the PIE word for the pole at the front of a chariot to which the horses are attached became the Greek word for the rudder of a ship, which can also be applied to the reins.

Nicolson makes the point that in these epics the Trojans are the civilized people living in the city and weaving cloth on their looms. The Greeks are the gangsters, the pirates, the barbarians at the gates. "The symbols at the heart of the city of Troy are those elegant, well-swept corridors of polished stone and the beautiful woven cloth its people give their gods; for the Greek camp it is edge-sharpened bronze and the unsheathed phallus." (p 181) Nicolson compares the Greeks to the urban gangsters of St Louis, Missouri: "Revenge is at the heart of their moral world, a repeated, angry and violent answer to injustice, to being treated in a way that does not respect them as people. ... Authority resides in the men themselves and their ability to dominate others. ... Crime itself on these streets becomes moral, and revenge a form of justice.  Like the Greeks, these gangsters are 'urban nomads' ... rootless, dependent on themselves, displaying their glory on their bodies, in their handsomeness, their jewellery and in the sexiness of the women on their arms and in their beds." (p 187) Disrepect makes them suddenly extremely violent. And the violence makes them feel good, one of them comparing breaking a man's legs to the feeling of ejaculating inside a woman. (p 189) Disrespect, personal affronts, minor slights, attack their core identity. This is what is behind the concepts of honour and glory in the Iliad, and the idea of fate, and the idea of undying fame, because when violence is your way of life those lives are necessarily brutish and short so it is important that you are remembered. "Gangs ... have their epics" (p 190). "The gangs treasure kleos aphthiton, deathless glory, because in their vulnerability and their transience, the way in which there is nothing beyond their bodies and the memory of their actions, they need it more than anyone who is lucky enough to live in the law-shaped, law-embraced, wall-girdled city" (p 191) And of course, behind the glory is sexuality. Homer "buries and dignifies" the connection between sex and violence in which the US gang members glory and delight, but the Iliad is after all the tale of greedy Agamemnon stealing from Achilles the slave girl Briseis and the murderous consequences that ensued. But although violence is in the foreground of Homer: war in the Iliad and the raging sea in the Odyssey "but throughout Homer the world of peace consistently resurfaces as a place of reproach and yearning, both memory and possibility." (p 167)

"The Iliad's subject is not war or its wickedness but a crisis in how to be. Do you, like Agamemnon, attempt to dominate your world? Do you, like Odysseus, manipulate it? Do you, like Hector, think of your family above all and weaken your resolve by doing that? Or do you, like Achilles, believe in the dignity of love and the purity of honour, as the only things that matter in the face of death?" (p 152) "Homer's subject is not elegance but truth, however terrible." (p 45)

Betrayal is a theme of the Odyssey. As the tale of the great trick, the Trojan Horse, is told Menelaus also remembers how Helen, the wife who had already betrayed him, called to the warriors hidden inside in the voices of the wives they had missed for ten years: "Is this intimacy now an attempt to betray them again?" (p 162)

Nicolson shows how the Odyssey is written as a complement to the Iliad; not only in that it fills out the back story to the Iliad but also in the sense that it describes wanderings while the Iliad is restricted in time and location and Achilles is a hero quite different from Ulysses. (p 60)

  • The Iliad is set on the plain before Troy but it often moves location to Olympus and the Gods fly across the Aegean. "But the poem never goes to Greece." (p 181)
  • "This is Odysseus's virtue: in the face of life's impossible choices, he is able to navigate between the whirlpool and the rock." (p 240)
  • "We are all vagabonds on earth, nothing belongs to us, out lives have no consequence and our possessions are dross. We are wanderers, place-shifters, the cosmic homeless" (p 152)
  • "Nothing in a storm can be inherited from one moment to the next." (p 235)


But the scope of Nicolson's book is far beyond just Homer; like Odysseus himself he ranges all over the known world:

  • "People are pitiably weak in the face of ruin, pathetically hoping that their prayers for happiness might prevail. That is why the goddesses of prayer in the Homeric universe are broken, tragic figures." (p 183)
  • Baths were important across the ancient world. Homer's word for bath is asaminthos, linked to hyacinth and labyrinth. Heroes in epics all had a bath when they got home: Jacob in Genesis, Gilgamesh, Odysseus abd Sinuhe (in an Egyptian epic) (pp 214 - 215)
  • anagnorisis: the moment when you see beneath the surface; the shock of recognition that Keats had 'On the first looking into Chapman's Homer'. (p 20)
  • "All modern versions of Homer are descendants of the edition made by a French nobleman" in 1788 (p 35)
  • The Isle of Ischia near Capri in the Bay of Naples was a cosmopolitan place in 700 BC; the graves show no ethnic zoning and contain corpses from Italy, Phoenicia, Syria and Greece. (p 62)
  • The word prekteres  links to practice, practical, pragmatic ... (p 218)
  • The Philistines who invaded Gaza in the 13th and 12th centuries BC may well have been Mycenean Greeks (p 224)
  • "Certain clusters of human genes ... which have their heartland in the copper-mining districts of Albania ... rarely appear elsewhere in Europe, except in two specific concentrations: one in the modern inhabitants of Galicia in north-west Spain, the other in the people of north-west Wales, both important centres of copper mining in the early Bronze Age." (p 116)
  • "Lizards seem to be the only liquid" (p 134)
  • Homer associates heroes with fame and glory, klus or klutos, and throughout the Indo-European world hero names have parts reflecting this, such has Herakles. (Presumably also Patroclus, beloved of Achilles and Phereclus, the Trojan shipwright.)
  • Hermes "is the god of the thief, the shepherd, the craftsman, the herald, the musician, the athlete and the merchant. He is at home with all kinds of cunning and trickery, charms and spells. He is the god who invented music and discovered fire. Dangerous magic and a kind of phallic potency glimmer around him like static. He is at home outside the limits of normality and stability, and so he is the god of boundaries and thresholds, of roads and doors, of transitional and alien places, of mines and miners, of the ability to make and transform the fixities and pre-arrangements of the world." (p 231)
  • Homer describes Penelope as periphron: "she has a mind which encompasses all sides of a question". (p 243)
  • Homer uses the word doupeo (thump) for the sound of a dead body falling to the ground; it is often accompanied by the rattle of his armour (arabeo) (p 120)
In brief, this is a phenomenal book, justly longlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-fiction in 2014 but why wasn't it short-listed, why didn't it win?

September 2016; 251 pages

Wednesday, 28 September 2016

"Science in a Free Society" by Paul Feyerabend

Feyerabend's thesis is that rationalism has too firm a grip on society and that the best medicine is a little anarchy.

He defines rationalism as "a secularized form of the belief in the power of the word of God." (p 20) which believes itself to be "'objective' and tradition-independent" but he suggests that although modern society bases itself on science "as uncritically as one once accepted the cosmology of bishops." (p 74) it is just another tradition fighting for itself in a world of alternative traditions. No tradition, he asserts, can judge another tradition because the values and beliefs of each tradition are different; this is a form of Kuhn's incommensurability thesis. You can't even damn a tradition on the basis that it is internally contradictory. Contradictions are not necessarily signs of a weak argument. The idea "that we do not live in a paradoxical world" so that our "knowledge must be self-consistent ... loses it authority the moment that we find that there are facts whose only adequate description is inconsistent and that inconsistent theories may be fruitful."

OK. These are serious issues. We have to acknowledge that science is 'just' another tradition and that it is difficult to make an objective judgement about whether as a tradition is is one of the best. But Feyerabend then appears to assert that this difficulty therefore means that anything ought to go.

He asserts that "a free society is a society in which all traditions are given equal rights, equal access to education and other positions of power." (p 30). Thus Hopi creation myths should be taught alongside the Big Bang Theory, astrology with astronomy, homeopathy with scientific medicine (he doesn't like scientific medicine!). Thus far he is relativist; he is also anarchist is the sense that "rules have their limit" (p 32) though he probably doesn't go on to assert that "all rules and standards are worthless and should be given up." (p 32). 

He appears to advocate the Socratic view that everything should be examined (although he places a significant restriction on the ability to examine if we can only examine any one tradition from inside). But Feyerabend does not appear to examine his basic assumption which seems to be that we 'should' live in a 'free' and 'democratic' society. 

Because if he is right that a 'free' society must give all traditions equal rights then it would follow that a 'free' society must give "equal rights, equal access to education and other positions of power" to 'traditions' such as racism and Nazism and Aztec human sacrifice. I don't think I want to live in such a society.

The second half of the book is dedicated to vitriolic attacks on those who have dared to criticise him, suggesting that he has been misunderstood. He seems hurt by the violence of the reaction to what he thinks are reasoned views but the section in which these protestations are made is entitled "Conversations with illiterates" which doesn't sound either friendly or reasoned. 

Some interesting points but the overall conclusions seem ridiculous. September 2016; 217 pages

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

"The Burning Bride" by Manoj Kerai

This debut novel aims certainly succeeds in its aim to raise awareness about the way a marriage can be used by some people in India to extort money from the family of the bride; in 2013 over 8,000 women in India were murdered for a dowry despite the fact that dowries are illegal.

The first few pages set the scene. Avantika and her husband have all but bankrupted themselves to get daughter Uma married to Vijay, son of a wealthy and powerful family. But then Vijay's mother, Madhu, who has already pushed the cost of the wedding as high as it can go, asks for more money.

Uma, living with Vijay and his family, is trapped. She can't go back to her parents: she would be a shamed woman and never able to marry again. But she is entirely in Madhu's power. Angry words and humiliation slowly escalate into physical abuse. Even when she has a daughter, the bullying continues. And no one is talking about Vijay's first wife, or about his present girlfriend. It seems no one can help her.

Carefully plotted, the tension in this novel builds to an exciting climax.

The story is told from the perspectives of nine women. Of these, Alice, Vijay's English business partner and mistress, is a distinct voice, perpetually angry at the sexist behaviour of 'dickhead' men. But the Indian women, though they have different back stories and different issues, all seem to have the same interests (from the evidence of this novel virtually all Indian women are obsessed with food, TV soap operas, and what other people think of them) and the same voice.

This was the thing I found most challenging about this book. It is written in a very 'flat' writing style. Issues are explained and dissected very clearly, whether in descriptions or in dialogue or in the thoughts of the characters. But there is no emotional punch to the writing. For example, when Nilambari recalls drinking lassi spiked with cannabis which resulted in her being subjected to a mass rape "She realised she was naked and her body ached everywhere.  ... Nilambari let out a pained howl as the memories returned to her .... After lamenting for a while she realised she had to get away before anyone came back." An incredibly traumatic event is written up in a very matter of fact way as if by a disinterested observer in an academic journal rather than the character who suffered the events. Whilst not seeking the purple prose of a Gothic novel, I found this style rather cold. If I had woken up naked and realised I had been raped I doubt I would have been capable of thinking in sentences, let alone well-formed sentences like these.

Perhaps it is the way books are written in India.

But to an English reader the way the characters seemed to analyse their own predicaments in such a detached manner made them seem two-dimensional. Even though Madhu's back story was chronicled, including her humiliation when she was a new bride and the abortions forced on her and her terrible insecurity when she became a young widow, she still emerged as a pantomime villain. Uma had victim written all over her; the fact that she had been working as a nurse before her marriage seemed to have no impact whatsoever when she was entrapped by, among other things, her own traditional values. Avantika her mum thought only of her status in society. Amrita was the personification of vengeance. Although most of the characters changed in the way they behaved, the only character who showed signs of evolving attitudes was Vijay's sister Charu.

As a result, although I sympathised with Uma's plight, I didn't empathise with Uma.

One of the difficulties facing a book set in a foreign country is the language. There a lots of Gujerati (?) words in this book that I didn't know before, for example beti, lakh, baa, bapuji; foreign words appear on almost every page. Some authors might try to translate them, which could easily ruin the flow of the narrative, but this author allows the reader to understand them from the context and this is mostly very successful (although I did long for a translation when whole sentences appeared).

This is an intricately plotted book with plenty of tension which opens a window into the abuses which can occur when appearances matter more than being good.

September 2016; 434 pages




Saturday, 17 September 2016

"The Alchemist" by Ben Jonson

I saw the RSC production of 'The Alchemist' directed by Polly Findlay at the Barbican Theatre on Saturday (matinee) 17th September 2016. The cast included Ken Nwosu as Face, Mark Lockyer as Subtle, Siobhan McSweeney as Dol Common, Joshua McCord as Dapper, Richard Leeming as Abel Drugger, Ian Redford as Sir Epicure Mammon and Tom McCall as Kastril; they were all magnificent.

I imagine it is a difficult play to adapt; Ben Jonson packed it full of references to London in 1610. The company mostly cut or adapted these but kept most of the language authentic.

The play itself has a slightly lopsided structure. Many of the early scenes are repetitions of the same situation: another dreamer is coming to be parted with his money. It is not until later that some of the situations start to dovetail, the gulls come too quickly to be separated, the con artists start having to improvise and everything comes to a farcical climax.

I was impressed with Act 1 which starts with a furious argument between Subtle, the alchemist, and Face, the steward of the house; Dol Common mediates and they eventually shake hands. This was a great way of getting a bit of explanatory back story in at the beginning.

The scenes, in this Act and the others, run on one into another; often the knocking heard in one scene presages the entry of the character in the next; sometimes the main character of the subsequent scene has entered even before the last scene has ended. This makes a very smooth and faster pace than breaking everything up.

Act 1 continues with the arrival of Dapper, a young gentleman about town , "a fine young qoudling") the first of their gulls, who wants to win money gambling and is persuaded that Subtle can charm Dapper's aunt, the Queen of Fairy, to give Dapper a fly which will help him win. He is sent off to fumigate himself and recite 'hum' and 'buzz' thrice and change his shirt.

This scene is made especially difficult by references to topical issues (the RSC cut most of them out): Simon Read, who had been convicted of summoning spirits to discover a thief and Tobias Matthews, his cheated customer; Chiause, a Turkish imposter who pretended he was a messenger from the Sultan; Clim o' the Cloughs, outlaw etc. The RSC changed the word 'Chiause' in 'chirk' which meant something like 'sneak' and after Dapper protested that he was no 'chirk' Face used the word repeatedly as if he didn't know what it meant. Very clever!

Then Abel Drugger, a tobacconist, who has a shop situated on a corner, wants to know where to put the door to attract the most trade (Feng Shui?). The pair tell him what he needs to know and promises that he will be a great alchemist himself some day.

Their next mark is Sir Epicure Mammon. Subtle explains that Sir E has contracted him to provide the philosopher's stone so that Sir E can use it to cure illness, old age and poverty: "He will make/ Nature ashamed of her long sleep ... If his dream last, he'll turn the age, to gold." 

In Act 2 Sir Epicure Mammon boasts to Surly that when he has from Subtle the Philosopher's Stone he will make all his friends rich and cure all the diseases of the world, he will enjoy a harem and epicurean delights. Surly is sceptical which goads Sir E onto more extravagant claims. There is a lot of hot air in this speech which the RSC turned into comedy by making the other characters repeatedly attempt, vainly, to interrupt Sir E in full flow.

Subtle comes in and pretends to check with Face that all of the stages in processes A B C D E F and G are been carried out correctly; there are a lot of alchemical terms being used here as he tries to blind Surly and Sir E with science ("Some do believe hermaphrodeity/ That both do act, and suffer.") but Surly stays sceptical: "What else are all your terms,/ Wherein no one o' your writers 'grees with others?" A good question for today's sociologists. 

Dol walks across the stage and Face and Subtle tell their guests that she is the mad sister of a Lord who has been sent to be cured. Face hints to Sir E that her madness is nymphomania and Sir E asks: "Is she no way accessible? No means,/ No, trick, to give a man a taste of her - wit -"

Ananias, an Anabaptist, arrives. Subtle quizzes his 'apprentice' Face in alchemy; using lots of terms. But Ananias reveals that he has not brought any more money, his masters becoming increasingly sceptical and worrying that they are being duped. Subtle sends him packing.

Abel Drugger the tobacconist appears; he now wants Subtle to make possible a marriage between himself and a lady whose brother opposes the proposed match.

In Act 3 Ananias meets with Tribulation, a pastor from Amsterdam. They need money "For the restoring of the silenced Saints" (to help brethren who have are being persecuted by the established church) and to that end they see alchemy as an unpleasant means to a good end. "The children of perdition are, oft-times,/ Made instruments even of the greatest works." Besides, Tribulation is prepared to accept the excuse that the alchemist, being always beside sulphurous fire, is unable to escape being tainted with devilry: "Where have you greater atheists, than your cooks?" he asks. They are even prepared to accept coining as a way of getting rich.

Face is expecting a Spanish Lord to come soon in more than one sense of the word; he will get the man to fall for Dol "for she must milk his epididimis".

Drugger arrives with Kastril whose sister is the widow he would like to marry. K wants to be taught how to quarrel successfully).

Face extorts money from Dapper by promising him that the Queen of Fairy is coming. Then Subtle enters disguised as the Priest of Fairy and Dapper is blindfolded and made to throw away his purse, his ring and all "that is transitory" whilst Subtle and Dol pretend to be elves and pinch him. But Sir E is at the door! Hastily Dapper is gagged and carted away to be hidden in the privy.

Act 4 begins with Sir E being  introduced to Dol, playing the part of a mad noblewoman. She protests she is not noble; he answers
"Had your father

Slept all the happy remnant of his life
After the act, lain but there still, and panted,
He'd done enough, to make himself, his issue,
And his posterity noble"
A nice piece of anti-hereditary propaganda from Jonson
Sir E promises Dol wealth, for "I am the master of the mastery": he will possess the philosopher's stone once Subtle has manufactured it.

Kastril returns with his sister. Face has promised to arrange a marriage between her and Abel Drugger but Face really fancies her and wants her for himself. Subtle and Face argue over Kastril's sister. Then Spanish grandee Don John arrives. Face has promised a wife for him, having Dol in mind, but Dol is presently engaged with Sir E, so Subtle and Face decide that Don J should have Kastril's widowed sister ("There is no maidenhead to be feared or lost"). Don J is actually Surly in disguise, come to expose the conning rogues. He speaks Spanish, which Face and Subtle do not understand, and they speak English, which of course Surly does.

Kastril is pleased at the thought of the Spanish count for his sister but she, Dame Pliant, resists; she has hated Spaniards since the time of the Armada. But Kastril more or less forces her.

Dol, talking to Sir E, pretends to be raving lunacies. Subtle blames Sir E for this and warns that Sir E's impure thoughts will destroy the experiments (at which point, using a fuse that trails across the stage, with a wonderfully loud theatrical bang and a lot of smoke, Face blows the workshop up. Sir E's hopes are dashed.

Surly tells Dame Pliant that she is being conned and accuses Subtle but, in a wonderfully neat trick, Face turns the tables on Surly by accusing him of being the rogue at which point Kastril and Abel Drugger (who had wanted the widow and turns up) join in chasing Surly away. Now Face proposes that Abel dresses up as a Spaniard himself, to woo Dame Pliant. Surly has the clothes but there might be some spare ones from the actor who has just been playing Hieronimo in Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy (a part Jonson is believed to have played).

Then Dol announces that Face's master, the owner of the house they have used, is in the street outside talking to the neighbours. Face needs a shave and then he will delay his master while Dol and Subtle get all their ill-gotten gains together and decamp.

So Act 4 runs into Act 5. The neighbours tell Lovewit, the owner of the house, of all the comings and the goings but Face (in his guise as servant Jeremy) tells his master that plague visited the house (the cat got it) and so he shut the house up; no one came or went. The neighbours retract their statements.

Surly and Sir E arrive, to confront and accuse the rogues; they go off to get officers of the law. Then angry boy Kastril comes, and priests Ananias and Tribulation. Then Dapper cries out from the privy; they had forgotten him!

Subtle arranges that Dapper meets Dol, dressed as the Queen of Fairy, and receives a fly from her to help him with gambling. The three rogues are about to decamp with the loot but Face reveals that he has confessed all to his master for a pardon and the loot is confiscated by the master. The only thing that Subtle and Dol can do is flee as the Officers of the Law come to the door. Sir E claims his pots and pans which were to be converted into gold but cannot prove they are his so Lovewit keeps them. The same happens to the priests. Lovewit has also married Kastril's sister and gets a dowry from him.

Well! It started slow but it certainly ended up in classic farce.

Ben Jonson also wrote Volpone which I saw in a brilliant performance by the CandleLight Theatre Company at the Cockpit Theatre in north London at the matinee on 13th February 2016.

September 2016; 185 pages
 

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

"Body Politic" by Paul Johnston

March 2020. Edinburgh is an independent city state ruled by a Board of celibate Guardians with Platonic ideals and guardsmen (Auxiliaries) who are officially known only by barrack name and number. It runs casinos and a red light district for tourists, its main source of income. Quintilian Dalrymple demoted Auxiliary, works in the Parks and moonlights as a private investigator. But a murder has been committed and the Guardians have need of him.

Despite the weird setting, this was really just an average crime thriller about the hunt for a serial killer. Sex, violence and Plato. Some good metaphors "weirder than sweet-smelling sewage" and some that felt, frankly, forced: "He looked so welcoming that I clenched my buttocks"; "the fog had returned and was settling over the city as thickly as the mustard gas in a Wilfred Owen poem"; "Then, out of my favourite colour, an idea came to me".

September 2016; 345 pages

Monday, 12 September 2016

"Mrs Dalloway" by Virginia Woolf

This stream of consciousness novel (is it a novel?) is a sort of halfway house between the extremely poetic but fiendishly difficult to read The Waves and the much easier to follow and slightly more structured To The Lighthouse, both by Woolf. The activity of following a hero through the hours as she wandered round London reminded me of Leopold Bloom's journey around Dublin in Ulysses a book which Woolf had read but thought was "An illiterate, underbred book it seems to me: the book of a self-taught working man, & we all know how distressing they are, how egotistic, insistent, raw, striking, & ultimately nauseating.". Comments like this suggest that Woolf was a massive snob; isolated from reality by her privileged upbringing in Bloomsbury. But she attempts to empathise with the working class in the tragic arc of Septimus Smith, the shell-shocked war hero whose day intersects and contrasts with Mrs Dalloway's.

The major difference between the telling of Bloom's journey through Dublin and Dalloway's through London is that Woolf keeps shifting her focus, frequently introducing a character only for that character to become the narrator, as though we were all somehow telepathically linked; not so much a stream as an ocean of consciousness in which we all swim.

There are themes that run through the book. The most obvious is the hours struck by Big Ben and other church clocks("The leaden circles dissolved in the air)", a repeated motif. Peter Walsh hears them on page 36 and thinks of this image. Clarissa hears clocks striking and has exactly the same thought on page 135, having heard of the death of Septimus, as she watches the old lady in the window opposite preparing for bed ("Fear no more the heat of the sun"; quoting Cymbeline). Other motifs include:

  • Hats: On page 5 Clarissa Dalloway "felt very sisterly and at the same time oddly conscious of her hat" whilst Septimus Smith's wife Rezia makes hats for people: "'It is the hat that matters most,' she would say" (p 65). When she first met Septimus "his hat had fallen when he hung it up" (p 106): forecasting doom! And after Septimus has died, as she is in shock, sipping sherry , Rezia has a memory of when "she put on her hat, and ran through cornfields" (p 109) Peter Walsh, in his hotel room, thinks "Any number of people had hung up their hats on those pegs" (p 112). 
  • Gloves: Clarissa has "a passion for gloves" (p 8); Hugh and Richard collect "yellow gloves from the bowl on the malachite table" after visiting Lady Bruton on page 81; Elizabeth, Mrs Dalloway's daughter, who doesn't care for gloves on page 8, runs back upstairs because she has forgotten them on page 91.
  • Self consciousness: as with the hat on page 5, Clarissa realises on p 8 that "half the time she did things not simply, not for themselves; but to make people think this or that; perfect idiocy she knew ... for no one was ever for a second taken in" On the other hand Rezia hears an old woman singing for money in the street: "And if someone should see, what matter they?" (p 62)
  • Caring "not a straw"; On page 8 Elizabeth, Clarissa's almost-adult daughter "cared not a straw for either" gloves or hats. Peter Walsh "cared not a straw - not a straw" for what the Dalloways and others think of him on page 37. Richard "didn't care a straw what became of Emigration" on page 83. 
  • Horror: Maisie Johnson, observing Septimus and Rezia, thinks "Horror, horror!" on page 20; Mrs Dalloway says to herself "Oh this horror!" on page 27; both are a clear reference to Conrad's Heart of Darkness.
  • Peter Walsh's motif is to play with a pocket knife
  • Shakespeare: The England of Septimus seemed to be very Shakespearean.
    • Shakespeare and sex: Richard Dalloway believes that "no decent man ought to read Shakespeare's sonnets because it was like listening at keyholes (besides, the relationship was not one that he approved)." (p 56) But Septimus Smith went to France as a soldier "to save an England which consisted almost entirely of Shakespeare's plays" (p 64); it is not until he is mad, presumably with some sort of PTSD following his experiences in the trenches, that he decides that "Love between a man and woman was repulsive to Shakespeare. The business of copulation was filth to him before the end." (p 66). Does this mean Septimus is gay? He hero-worshipped his commanding officer Evans; they used to "share with each other" which I have been told was code for homosexual behaviour in the 1920s (E M Forster used 'share' in this sense in Maurice). There is also a clear hint of lesbianism in Clarissa's relationship at school with Sally. 
    • Shakespeare and death: There are two key quotes:
      • "if it were now to die 'twere now to be most happy", a line from Othello is remembered by Mrs Dalloway on page 26; she remembers it again on page 134 when she hears that Septimus has killed himself.
      • "Fear no more the heat of the sun" which Clarissa reads in the window of the bookshop at the start of the book and remembers them in the last paragraph; Septimus also thinks how hot the sun is just before killing himslef. These words are from the funeral song in Cymbeline; the refrain of the song is "Golden lads and girls all must/ Like chimney sweepers come to dust" which is also yet another reference to clocks and time because 'chimney sweepers' were another name for dandelion clocks in Shakespeare's days.
  • Thread. Is this a reference to the Fates, Clotho who spun, Lachesis who measured and Atropos who severed the thread of a human's life? On page 83 Millicent Bruton "let the thread snap"; Richard imagines a "spider's thread of attachment between himself and Clarissa" on page 84. Rezia, making a hat, puts down her scissors on page 103, minutes before her husband ends his life. 
  • Time. We hear the clocks striking at regular intervals throughout the book (Big Ben often, St Margaret's two minutes afterwards). Mrs Dalloway "feared time itself ... the dwindling of life; how year by year her share was sliced ; how little the margin that remained was capable any longer of stretching ... Narrower and narrower would her bed be." (p 23) Though "Life had a way of adding day to day" (p 49), one day it will all end and then "how unbelievable death was! - that it must end; and no one in the whole world would know how she had loved it all; how, every instant ..." (p 89). One day far into the future archaeologist will start digging through the ruins of what was once London, finding nothing "but bones with a few wedding rings mixed up in their dust and the gold stoppings of innumerable decayed teeth." (p 13) (Smith already thinks of his wife as "a piece of bone"; p 12). Woolf uses this image of the archaeologists to suggest that "greatness was passing" (p 14); the "sick transit of Gloria Monday" as Stephen Fry puts it in The Ode Less Travelled
  • Religion: "Religious ecstasy made people callous (so did causes); dulled their feelings" (p 9) thinks Mrs Calloway but shell-shocked Septimus Smith has a religious mania which has set his nerves on edge (though he is self-obsessed and blind or indifferent to the suffering of his wife). But Mrs D too can feel like a religious: "as the maid shut the door to, and she heard the swish of Lucy's skirts, she felt like a nun who has left the world and feels fold round her the familiar veils and the response to old devotions." (p 22) though "not for a moment did she believe in God" (p 22)  Mrs Dalloway doesn't like religion: "Love and religion! thought Clarissa ... how detestable they are! ... Love destroyed too. Everything that was fine, everything that was true went." (p 92) The soul is described as "This leaf-encumbered forest, the soul" (p 9)

Woolf uses these motifs to show how feelings are shared between all of us, and she uses the run-on stream-of-consciousness technique, with the point-of-view flowing from one person to the next, as if her characters can somehow understand what others are thinking. Because feelings, she asserts, can be passed on from one person to another: Septimus Warren Smith has "eyes which had that look of apprehension in them which makes complete strangers apprehensive too." (p 11)

There are other moments of magic, of poetry, of acute observation:

  • And sometimes, through some accident, "like a faint scent, or a violin next door ... she did undoubtedly then feel what men felt ... the world come closer, swollen with some astonishing significance, some pressure of rapture, which split its thin skin and gushed and poured with an extraordinary alleviation over the cracks and sores." (p 24)
  • "She made as if to hide her dress, like a virgin protecting chastity, respecting privacy." (p 30)
  • Mrs Dalloway thinks of "a Queen whose guards have fallen asleep and left her unprotected ... so that anyone can stroll in and have a look at her where she lies with the brambles curving over her" (p 32) in an obvious reference to Sleeping Beauty.
  • Egotism is "the river which says on, on, on; even though, it admits, there may be no goal for us whatever, still on, on" (p 33) Septimus Smith, of course, decides to kill himself.
  • Sycophantic Hugh goes "snuffing round the precincts of the great" (p 125)
This book is harder to read than most but the insights into the human condition, the acuteness of the observations and the poetry of the prose make it worth the effort.

Septmeber 2017; 141 pages










"The Road to Eleusis" by Gordon Wasson, Albert Hoffman and Carla Ruck

Eleusis was a place where Athenian used to travel to take part in a religious rite which unlocked some sort of secret about the meaning of life; they were forbidden to reveal the secrets under pain of death and this prohibition seems to have been successful although in 415 BC Alcibiades and his chums were accused of "celebrating the Mystery at home with groups of drunken guests at dinner parties" (p 47). Perhaps it was not so much that the Mystery shouldn't be told but that it couldn't: "Even a poet could only say that he had seen the beginning and the end of life and known that they were one, something given by god. The division between earth and sky melted into a pillar of light." (p 47)

This 30 year old book attempts to explain the secret of the Mystery as being a drug induced hallucination. It notes that "There were physical symptoms ... that accompanied the vision: feat and a trembling in the limbs, vertigo, nausea and a cold sweat." (p 47) It claims that "What was witnessed there was no play by actors, but phasmata, ghostly apparitions" (p 47). Athenians had plays, they would have been too sophisticated to be taken in by mere drama, it claims. The authors note that the Greeks diluted their wine although "Greeks did not know the art of distillation" (p 51); nevertheless "The word for drunkenness in Greek designates a state of raving madness. We hear of some wines so strong that they could be diluted with twenty parts of water and that required at least eight parts of water to be drunk" (p 51). From this they conclude that the Greek process of making wine led to a product that was adulterated with psychotropic impurities "capable of inducing different physical symptoms, ranging from slumber to insomnia and hallucinations" (p 52). The drunken dinner parties therefore connect with the Eleusian Mysteries.

I got a little confused at this point. The authors had a number of suggestions for the source of the drugs used in the mysteries: impure alcohol, ergot on rye grain, baked into bread, sacred mushrooms, etc. So this left a number of questions in my mind:

  • If the Greeks were used to ingesting psychotropic substances by accident in undiluted wine, bread made from infected grain etc, why were the Eleusian Mysteries regarded as special?
  • Given that most hallucinogens produce markedly different affects in different people, or in the same person at different times, (the authors themselves note symptoms "from slumber to insomnia", two ends of a spectrum) how did the organisers at Eleusis ensure that everyone had more or less the same visions? (This assumes that they did; maybe a lot of people left Eleusis without any religious conversion.)


I think the authors have made the following points successfully:

  • Greek wine was unusually potent for some reason
  • Greeks were not unused to ingesting psychotropic substances
  • Greek myths contain references to hallucinogens in the rites of Persephone, Demeter, Dionysus etc; there are references to Helen adulterating wine with 'nepenthe'; there are references to gathering mushrooms etc; there seem to be words which could be codes for hallucinogenic substances.
  • The ceremonies at Eleusis certainly involved all the celebrants imbibing something in preparation.

But what we still need desperately to know is what else happened at Eleusis to give it such immense power to affect people.

I was a little disappointed in the structure of the book. It seems a loose collection of articles by the authors. Two of the articles seem to contain repeated material.

September 2015; 139 pages

Friday, 9 September 2016

"The Ode Less Travelled" by Stephen Fry

Having loaned this book to my mate Fred, I thought I had better re-read it.

With his usual verbal brilliance and Wildean asides, Fry dissects the techniques and forms of poetry from Chaucer to Dylan Thomas, from Europe to Indonesia. He explains metre (iambs, trochees, dactyls and the less usual forms), stanzas, liners and feet (trimeter, tetrameter, pentameter, Alexandrine etc) and techniques such as enjambment, caesuras, and trochaic substitutions etc. He explains rhymes which should be "natural, transparent, seamless, discreet and unforced", and slant rhymes, and their patterns such as cross rhyming and envelope rhyming.

Then he goes through the forms. Well! I knew the sonnet. I had heard of odes and ballads but I didn't really know what they were. He explains, and this is not an exhaustive list, the ballad, anglo-saxon styles, Dante's terza rima, rubai, Spenserian stanza, Heroic verse, Sapphic, Pindaric, Horatian, and lyric odes, anacreontics, villanelles, sestinas, pantoums, ballades (NOT the same as ballads!), rondeaus and rondea redoubles, haikus, tankas, luc bats, limericks, clerihews, and the variants of sonnets. Each of these Fry illustrates with a poem of his own, as well as judiciously picked 'real' poems (did you know that 'Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night' by Dylan Thomas was a villanelle?), while exhorting you to READ ALOUD and do poetry exercises.

I felt so ignorant.
BUT

It made me want to read and write poetry. 

September 2016; 327 pages

"The Cat" by Colette

This is a novella which I read in a still slim volume with Colette's better known Gigi. I much preferred The Cat.

Alain, spoilt only son to a silk fortune, lives with his mother and the cat he adores in their immaculate home. He marries tempestuous Camille and they move into Patrick's triangular high rise apartment while Camille supervises the alterations that will be necessary before Alain's home will be ready for his new bride. At first they leave the cat, Saha, behind but it pines so Alain, without consulting his wife, takes it to his new home. Camille becomes jealous and Alain, despite enjoying sex with his wife, comes to realise he has made a mistake.

This is a portrait of a marriage doomed from the start. It is both sensitive and brutal, deriving both of these from the uncompromising honesty with which Gigi dissects human relationships. For example, after their first night together, Alain reflects "It is always like this the first night? The bruised, unsatisfactory feeling? This half-success, half-disaster?" (p85) which, for me, is far more realistic than the ecstasy of romantic novels or the utter catastrophe of On Chesil Beach. Camille, on her side, muses: "She was licensed to share his bed, to prop up a young man's naked body against her thigh and shoulder, to become acquainted with its colours and curves and defects. She was free to contemplate boldly and at length the small dry nipples, the loins she envied, and the strange design of the capricious sex." (p 86) I adored that word 'capricious'. It turns on its head the cliche of women being fickle ("La Donna e mobile") whilst at the same time alluding (though actually deriving from the Italian word for a shiver) to Capricorn, the goat, symbol of lechery. Alain thinks the same of Camille: "She could be as violent and capricious as a mountain stream" (p 63). And she is the sexy one; he feels embarrassed by her nakedness: "She paraded for him, so proudly and so completely devoid of modesty that he rather rudely flung her the crumpled pyjama-jacket which lay on the bed." (p 84)

One telling incident comes when Saha, the cat, stands on Alain's chest. "One single claw pierced the silk [remember that Alain's money comes from silk] of the pyjamas, catching the skin just enough for Alain to feel an uneasy pleasure." (p 70). But when, later, Alain draws "his nails slowly and delicately all the way down her stomach" Camille is shocked, goes stiff, "her hair on end and her eyes hostile and threatening" and asks if he is vicious. (p 88) It becomes clear that Alain's relationship with the cat is a sexual one and that Camille has every justification in being jealous, although Alain, who thinks of sex purely as the mechanical act he has done with his mistresses, denies it. But he loves Saha for her experience: "What about your first seducer, the white tom without a tail? Do you remember that my ugly one, my trollop in the rain, my shameless one?" If that isn't grounds for jealousy, what is?

And when he goes back home, after his first night, to see the cat again, "He stole into the garden like a boy in his teens who has stayed out all night." (p 91) This suggests that it is the sex with Camille that he feels guilty about.

Other brilliant lines:

  • "June came with its longer days, its night skies devoid of mystery." (p 93)
  • "His heart was beating fast because he had meanly eavesdropped without being punished for it and because he had been listening to prejudiced witnesses and unsought accomplices." (p 113)
  • "All the untidiness of a hot night ... a garment forgotten on a deck-chair, empty glasses on a metal table, a pair of sandals." (p 126)
  • "All through his life, a man has to be born many times with no other assistance than that of chance, of bruises, of mistakes." (pp 150 - 151)

Colette's ability to describe scenes and characters with economy but intense clarity gives this story a power that Gigi never achieves. I loved it!

September 2016; 97 pages
Page numbers represent the Penguin Vintage Classics edition.





Wednesday, 7 September 2016

"Gigi" by Colette

Gigi is half way between a short story and a novelette; I read it is a slim volume where it was paired with Colette's The Cat. Gigi was made into a musical film by Lerner and Lowe, who were also responsible for My Fair Lady; there basic theme of older man moulding and perhaps manipulating a younger girl, who then turns out to be stronger and more moral than he is, are obvious.

Fifteen year old Gigi is the daughter of a minor music-hall singer. Her grandmother and her great aunt, both one time members of the demi-monde, are trying to groom Gig to be a successful courtesan. But what Gaston, heir to a fortune in sugar, loves about Gigi is how natural she is.

For me, the most interesting thing about this story was the ruthless cynicism of the grandmother (now poor) and the great aunt (living off the fabulous diamonds and emeralds she acquired) as they educate this child into how to be a lady so that she can command a higher price.

Colette creates some wonderful characters with a few sure strokes of her pen. She also gives us some wonderful epigrams (although there was a moment when I felt that she was trying too hard to out Wilde Wilde):

  • "The heron-like legs of a girl of fifteen" (p 7)
  • "'But Grandmamma, I've got on my drawers and my petticoat.' 'Drawers are one thing, decorum is another.'" (p 8)
  • "'Can't you ever manage to keep your legs together?'" (p 9)
  • "'The three great stumbling-blocks in a girl's education, she says, are homard a l'Americaine, a boiled egg, and asparagus. Shoddy table manners, she says, have broken up many a happy home.'" (p 15)
  • "Calling people and things by their names has never done anyone any good." (p 22)
  • "For a woman, attention to the lower parts is the first law of self-respect." (p 24)
  • "The telephone is of real use only to important businessmen, or to women who have something to hide." (p 26)


A lovely story but it rather left me wondering what people saw in Colette. I preferred the far less well known but, to my mind, infinitely better, The Cat.

September 2016; 50 pages

"Our Endless Numbered Days" by Claire Fuller

Judging from the reviews on goodreads.com this is definitely a marmite book; some people adore it and others hated it. To me it seemed to be a cross between Emma Donoghue's Room and My Side of the Mountain by Jean George (the Guardian review also spotted this), a children's book which I read about 45 years ago. Peggy's Dad builds a nuclear fallout shelter in the cellar of the north London home. When her concert pianist mother goes on tour, he and Peggy live in a tent in the garden, trapping and eating squirrels. But a phone call from Peggy's mother changes everything. Dad takes Peggy, renamed Rapunzel, later Punzel, to a hut on a German mountainside. As they learn to live off the land he tells Peggy first that her mother has died and then that all of the rest of the world has been destroyed. As she grows into a young woman, Dad's behaviour becomes increasingly irrational.

The book, written as the recollections of a mentally damaged Peggy, now 17, begins with a stupendous hook: the second sentence describes a photo of her father: "He didn't look like a liar". But why, I wondered as the story developed, should Peggy find his lies so important; were his lunacies not more important? Perhaps those she can forgive.

This novel's strength lies in the details of Peggy's woodland life: gathering food, rebuilding the cabin; the challenges of winter; the effect of hunger and cold on their bodies; the gradual erosion of their civilisation and, with it, their rationality. Although the reader can discern signs of madness in the father from very early on (as soon as he starts making lists, for example), Fuller can at the same time convince us that the young Peggy is unable to disentangle fiction from reality.

One of the sinister aspects of this book is the character of Ute, the mother, the pianist. Not only does she fail to teach Peggy to play the piano, she even fails to teach her German, which is Ute's language. Ute seems very cold and distant from the start, and the disappearance on a concert tour (after what would seem to be quite a long career break to have Peggy) precipitates the events of the story. Of all the adults in the story, Ute is surely the most culpable; she feels little sympathy for a husband who is clearly undergoing a breakdown and she goes off on tour abandoning her daughter to a man on the verge of madness.

An important character, foreshadowed just before the mid-point of the book, is Reuben who plays a major part of the third third as events unfold to their crisis.

Further analysis of this interesting book requires SPOILERS

My first thought was that this was a Gothic novel, despite the fact that much of it is set in Germany (although the original Gothic novels, such as The Castle of OtrantoThe Monk, and A Sicilian Romance, were all set in Italy or Spain).

There are some classic points which come from the story models such as the Hero's Journey. For example, the 'Call to Adventure' comes when Ute the mother phones Papa, precipitating both a furious row with the sinister Oliver Hannington (culminating in a thrown paperweight shattering the glass roof of the conservatory; the family home has literally been broken) and Papa's journey with Peggy to Germany (literally the Hero's Journey).

There is, of course, a fairy tale theme. This is foreshadowed when Ute says that she does not like Oliver Hannington: "He is witching this family - it gives me the creepers" (p 7); the Germanisation of the language adding emphasis. On page 25, Papa tells a story starting 'Once Upon A Time'.Other magical elements include the way that Peggy seems to be able to think of things that subsequently come true; for example she wants fire to come and burn them all up before it very nearly does (her anger when she wishes for fire is precipitated by ants in the honey and a long time before that she has looked at ants and Phyllis her doll has said to her "They should crawl through the holes you made with the fire" (p 61); at school she lies that her mother is dead before (somewhat later) her father tells her that Ute is dead. Perhaps Peggy is really distorting her recollection of what happened and suppressing facts such as that she (perhaps) started the fire.

The book also references fairy tales include Goldilocks (porridge), Hansel and Gretel, Red Riding Hood (the wolf dies by the axe), and of course Rapunzel.

Then I realised that the central element at least conformed to the classic 'Voyage and Return' plot (see Christopher Booker's The Seven Basic Plots). The five elements of this plot are:

  • Fall into the other world
  • Dream stage
  • Frustration stage
  • Nightmare stage
  • Thrilling escape

The fall into the other world:
Peggy and Papa travel through France into Germany until they reach the 'Fluss' (the stream). On the banks of the Fluss there is an initiation event. Dad goes fishing; Peggy gets bored and wanders off. Dad calls out to 'Rapunzel' that he has caught a fish; then he realises that he has lost Peggy. He searches, she hides; he strips down to his pants and dives into the river looking for her; he calls out for 'Peggy' and she tells him she isn't Peggy, she is Rapunzel. He gets angry, grabs her, shakes her; picks up a rock and brings it down hard on the fish lying by her head, on her trousers. He shouts' Fuck', she cries that she wants to go home. "His anger was like a popped balloon" says they can't go home and when she asks why he tells her (falsely) that her mother is dead: "The wolf took her, 'Punzel." He hugs her and she "felt sick thinking about the fish brains soaking through the cloth" of her trousers. "I stopped struggling and went floppy in his embrace and the awful choking noises subsided." And afterwards the one thing that never disappears is "the red stain in the shape of a duckling ... high up on the right thigh" which may have been the fish brains but I think was her virgin blood.

The next day they cross the river. Peggy cant's swim and almost drowns in the flood. As a result, she realises she will never be able to go back.

They have entered the magical world as clearly as if they had walked through the fur coats at the back of the wardrobe into a wintry landscape.

They find the abandoned Hutte in this world. Peggy discovers the name 'Reuben' carved in the wood.

The dream stage:
This is characterised by a series of whimsical decisions made by Papa:

  • He starts to mark the days by notching the door frame but then gives up, announcing that they will live without time: "our days will be endless" (p 103) . After all, time stands still in the magical world beyond the stream. 
  • Once he has made the Hutte habitable they move out of their tent into it and they celebrate by cutting the tent to make a kite (p 107). Peggy realises this makes their return to the real world even less likely. 
  • He tells her that the rest of the world has gone; that no one is left  “‘I went over to the other side of the Fluss,’ he said. Steady drips of water punctuated his words with a hiss each time they dropped on to the hotplate. ‘To see the damage from the storm. It’s worse than I imagined.’ He sniffed. ‘The rest of the world has gone.’” This is beautiful writing. By splitting Papa's speech with a description of what happens and using partial sentences, the author really emphasises what he is telling her. It is a nice bit of pathetic fallacy as well, with the dripping water and Dad's sniffing emphasising the sadness of what he is saying (although he is lying!).
  • He makes a piano for the Hutte (p 113) (he creates a keyboard but they have to sing the notes); he teaches her to play. It is now that we have a metaphor which is perhaps a key moment of enlightenment. The sheet music they have is the piece of music that brought Peggy's parents together, when Papa was a seventeen-year-old substitute page-turner for Ute, the great concert pianist. On its cover is a picture of an angel who "seemed to be untroubled by the fact that a baby was struggling under the weight of the book which he held open for her." (p 114) Not only is this a fabulously wry look at a cherub, but it acts as a metaphor for Peggy, the child, who bears the weights of her father's demands. At the same time and possibly most of all it is a metaphor for Peggy's father, the page turner, who was seduced by an older woman (children who are abused often abuse others; seventeen was both Papa's age when he met Ute and Peggy's age when she finally escapes his clutches) and crumples under her subsequent expectations.

The frustration stage:
Winter arrives. Papa and Punzel are dreadfully prepared. They start to starve. Punzel discovers footprints in the forest (p 145); she thinks they can be neither hers not Papa's (but she keeps them secret to herself; this is the second manifestation of 'Reuben'). There is a blizzard: Papa goes outside inan apparent attempt at suicide but Punzel rescues him.

The nightmare stage:
They have survived the winter, spring arrives. One night Punzel lights the candle so she can practise playing her music and Papa gets angry, shouting a her for wasting a precious resource, and she flees to her special hiding place in the forest, where she sees 'Reuben's' boots walking past.

Time passes "One summer" she finds Phyllis and then she carves her name ('Punzel') next to 'Reuben'. She tells her father she hates living in the Hutte and wishes it would burn. She starts playing her piano and begins to compose a new song: "There's no suitor left for me". Going outsider to pee by moonlight, she realises there is blood between her thighs. Her periods have begun (p 182). And then she realises that the forest is on fire.

She struggles to save them both, although "My father held my arm out over the fire - offering me up, whilst I struggled to get away from the heat"; later he says, "Perhaps its time to let it go"  and starts to throw their possessions on the flames.

"After the fire, when I had finished growing and was as tall as I was ever going to be , I insisted on a bed of my own." (p 192) Punzel is now a menstruating woman. She spends the night in the open and is disturbed by a landslide (the earth moves; Fuller can be disturbingly literal with her metaphors). As this is happening she is on the mountainside and her father is in the Hutte but she does seem increasingly able to dissociate herself from what is happening and look down on the world in a sort of out of body experience.

She buries her doll, symbolising the end of her childhood, and she goes to the river, mourning that it has taken Reuben before she ever got to know him, and she imagines him. The she sees him. It is these juxtapositions of plot that Fuller is so good at: doll buried, imaginary friend imagined and then brought to life. Stunning!

With Reuben she starts to imagine that their cleaning in the forest could become "a paradise for two" but her father is now making lists of poisonous plants and she becomes aware that he is intending to kill them both.

It becomes increasingly obvious that she is having sex with her father. "For the remaining days of summer I stayed out of my father's way ... Sometimes he still caught me though, made a grab for my dress and pinned me between his knees. I stood rigid and kept quiet, so that later I could be sure I had done nothing to encourage these episodes of weeping or anger, and subsequent apologizing. He often called me Ute ..." (p 229) She spends days with Reuben roaming the mountain, looking down on her father in the Hutte: "Everything looks perfect from far away," he tells her and again we have classic dissociation.

The thrilling escape: 
Then we have a clear sex scene (p 239) with Reuben, but it is interrupted by her father calling "Punzel!" Reuben tells her that he doesn't want her to die but her father is calling and she has to go to him. These two battle for her. She runs into the Hutte to find it has been destroyed, chopped to pieces by an axe. There is a fight. Papa stabs with his knife and severs part of her ear. Reuben hits him with the axe and kills him.

We flashforward to London where Peggy is sick in the bathroom and her friend Becky tells her that, now her hair has been shaved off, she looks like Mia Farrow in Rosemary's Baby (Rosemary had the devil's child).

Peggy returns to the river and crosses it but Reuben is not on the other side. She treks on the the mountain ridge and discovers that her father lied; that the world is still there (p 256). She has returned to reality.

The very last scene is the one where Ute reveals that she thought Oskar was Oliver's baby, leading to the fatal phone call; where Peggy announces that Reuben was her lover; where the police phone and announce that the forensic evidence shows that Reuben did not exist, and where Ute realises that the baby is therefore her husband's. But we knew all that anyway.

There are moments I treasured, when the author explored an everyday occurrence in a beautifully original way:
  • "Oskar laughed and turned the handle, twisting it hard; his mouth twisting too, with the effort." (p 89) is a beautiful observation.
  • "It wasn't raining when Noah built the Ark." (p 8): a very useful saying

  • "He stormed about the room, making it even smaller" (p 166). We have all known someone who does that!
  • "Her hands were in her lap, clasped together. As she spoke she released them, and I could see red crescents where her nails had dug into her skin." (p 248) Again this is a fantastically clear observation. 
There are also some delightful metaphors. I have already mentioned the metaphor of the music, and of the shattered conservatory. On page 20 the neglected garden of the house in London is going back to nature; a nice metaphor for the decreasing grasp on rationality of Papa. And, of course, Red Riding Hood is the metaphor when, at last, Papa the sexual wolf dies with an axe in his head.

Hero's Journey, Fairy Tale or Voyage and Return; this intricately plotted makes fascinating reading.

September 2016; 292 pages