Book review: Wintersmith, (Discworld 35) by Sir Terry Pratchett, 2006

Wintersmith (Discworld Novels) by  Sir Terry Pratchett - Paperback - from World of Books Ltd (SKU: GOR001210366)

The Tiffany Aching series of novels gave Discworld a wonderful burst of new life – almost half of the last dozen novels in the series were Tiffany stories. We have followed Tiffany’s story since she was nine, and her training as a witch now sees her placed with Miss Treason, a 113-year old witch renowned for her dark and mysterious powers (which Tiff quickly works out are simply “boffo”, or as Granny Weatherwax would put it, headology. )

Unusually for Pratchett the novel opens with the novel’s climax, and then takes the reader back to the story’s origins. This structure isn’t a problem – it allows the reader to navigate the plot more easily when we know the destination, and is one of the more telling signs that this is a story for younger readers. Tiffany’s problems begin when she goes to observe the traditional “dark morris” dance which welcomes in the winter, Tiffany spontaneously joins the dance, interrupting the passage of the seasons between the two elementals, the Wintersmith and the Summer Lady—the personification of summer. The Wintersmith has never met anyone like Tiffany before, and once the dance is over determines to become a mortal and seek her out, using their spiritual connection forged over Tiff’s silver horse pendant.

This disruption of the natural order of things isn’t going to go well. With the help of the Feegles, and the loving support of Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg, Tiffany has to put things right. It’s not easy when you are being wooed by someone who can make all snowflakes in your image – and icebergs as well! At first Tiff takes refuge in Lancre, and the warm embrace of Nanny Ogg’s cottage, but the elemental Wintersmith is going to track her down.

Like most young adult novels, Wintersmith is really about growing up. Teenage Tiffany has to work through many of the problems and issues young teenagers face. Her fledgling romance with Roland, the Baron’s son (who she rescued in the first novel in the series, The Wee Free Men) is coming along nicely, but she has to battle to keep it private from the feegles and the witches. Speaking of battles, maintaining any sense of privacy from feegles (who take their geas to protect their ‘big wee hag’ very seriously) and witches who can see through her eyes isn’t easy. Later she has to come to terms with the death of an older character. Her place in her peer group is delicately balanced, and she manages to do the right thing and find her place in that hierarchy despite being aware of the subtle manipulations of Granny Weatherwax. Finally, she takes responsibility for her own actions when the temptation to shift the blame or hide behind others is overwhelming. While she may be flawed we are never in any doubt that Tiff will do the right thing and that will bring its own reward:

“It was lonely on the hill, and cold. And all you could do was keep going. You could scream, cry, and stamp your feet, but apart from making you feel warmer, it wouldn’t do any good. You could say it was unfair, and that was true, but the universe didn’t care because it didn’t know what “fair” meant. That was the big problem about being a witch. It was up to you. It was always up to you.”

I love it when Pratchett has the confidence to make such epic characters as Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg minor players in Tiffany’s story. The feegles are an endless delight, and there are some interesting new characters, not least 113 year-old Miss Treason, who wonderfully calls Granny “the girl Weatherwax”. Arguably the novel’s only weak spot is its fairly innocuous ending, but as I always say whoever reads Pratchett for his plots is really missing the point. I don’t think I read these novels with any particular care when they were first published, unwisely seeing them as books for younger readers, (which of course they are) but wrongly concluding there would be little in them for older readers. I am so glad to have got that wrong.

Book review: The Sea, The Sea, by Iris Murdoch, 1978

I’ve just spent a week in the company of a monster, and I didn’t enjoy it.

I really hated The Sea, The Sea. Or rather I really hated the novel’s protagonist, which on this occasion amounted to the same thing. For a novelist with a reputation for labyrinthine plots, this narrative is fairly straightforward. Theatre director Charles Arrowby the novel’s narrator, retires to the seaside to write his memoirs. Arrowby is utterly self-absorbed. His life has seen a succession of women throwing themselves at him and this pattern continues as he is visited by a series of former lovers, actresses of different degrees of fame, all wanting to resume their relationships. He is not interested, principally because he prefers to steal married women away from their husbands. As soon as each conquest has been mastered he loses interest. His latest obsession is Hartley, a childhood friend who he happens to meet in the village, who he sets about trying to persuade to leave her mild-mannered husband. He even goes to the extreme of kidnapping her, and only releases her once it is obvious she is not going to relent. To justify his obnoxious and criminal behaviour he persuades himself that Hartley is the long lost love of his life, although she clearly sees their friendship in a different light.

Charles’s magnetic attractiveness to women is not however just in his imagination – even at the end of the novel he received letters from a 17 year-old young woman offering him her virginity and to bear his child. But it is mysterious, because he is a bully and a bore. He is always having epiphanies, supposedly profound insights into what is really going on in people’s heads, insights which are invariably wrong. Undeterred he pushes on to the next revelation. When he finds out that his cousin James and his former lover Lizzie have been meeting for coffee occasionally, he throws a tantrum, reacting as if they have been betraying him. Instead of telling him to grow up they indulge his hurt feelings, apologise and withdraw. When he is pushed into the sea and nearly drowns the list of possible suspects is long – I think I would have been tempted!

So we’ve established that Charles is a deluded ego-maniac who is a danger to all around him. Just in case this point needs reinforcing, Murdoch has him see a monster in the choppy waters around his house. This monster is quickly dismissed as a LSD flashback, but later Charles reflects that “I let loose my own demons, not least the sea-monster of jealousy” (528) just in case anyone had missed the heavy-handed symbolism in the preceding 527 pages,

We are supposed to find Charles’s pretentious approach to food amusing. He prepares various mildly eccentric meals for himself and others. At first they are very slightly comic – I stress slightly:
Anchovy paste on hot buttered toast, then baked beans and kidney beans with chopped celery, tomatoes, lemon juice and olive oil… Then bananas and cream with white sugar. (Bananas should be cut, never mashed, and the cream should be thin.) Then hard water-biscuits with New Zealand butter and Wensleydale cheese. Of course I never touch foreign cheeses.

But there’s a relentlessness to this, and we get descriptions of meal after meal:

Lentil soup, followed by chipolata sausages served with boiled onions and apples stewed in tea, then dried apricots and shortcake biscuits… Fresh apricots are best of course, but the dried kind, soaked for twenty-four hours and then well drained, make a heavenly accompaniment for any sort of mildly sweet biscuit or cake. They are especially good with anything made of almonds, and thus consort happily with red wine.

OK, we get the point.

Murdoch is a hugely respected writer, but even her greatest fans seem prepared to acknowledge her flaws. Here the greatest sin is simply repetition – if something is worth saying it is repeated time after time. The scenes where Arrowby tries to persuade Hartley to leave her husband, and she asks to be allowed to leave, go on for page after page with little variation. The conceit that the novel is Arrowby’s memoir is inconsistently maintained – the struggle of having to construct time for him to draft his recollection of the previous events gets tiresome and is quietly dropped. Murdoch’s (alright, Arrowby’s) technique for building suspense is limited:

“Something happened which was so extraordinary and so horrible that I cannot bring myself to describe it” (1)

“Something rather odd and distressing has just occurred”

“I was sitting writing the above late last night in my drawing room when something very disconcerting happened” (74)

“Shortly after this something very disconcerting happened”. (107)

Obviously this is equally a reflection on Charles’s limited ability to express himself, but the end result is wearying.

It should be possible to enjoy and appreciate a novel where the central character is obnoxious or deluded (Pale Fire?) but I didn’t find it so here. Arrowby is a pompous bore who desperately needs to wake up to his own short-comings, but never. Even someone trying to kill him doesn’t make him pause for reflection! There’s no development in Charles’s character – he remains as deluded and ignorant at the end of the story as he was in its beginning. Is it my shortcoming in not being able to enjoy this widely revered novel(ist)?

Thud! (Discworld 34) by Sir Terry Pratchett, 2005

I read Thud! when it was first published, and can still remember the slightly puzzling feeling of disappointment. His recent novel – Going Postal and Monstrous Regiment for example – had been imperious, but this was a slight mis-fire. Or so I remembered. But memory can be misleading – would the novel have the same impact some fifteen years on?

Yes and no. On the one hand this is a Watch novel, featuring Sam Vimes and his team. It’s also in many ways an exceptionally well-constructed detective novel, albeit in a fantasy setting featuring dwarves, trolls, vampires and werewolves. Some critics have found the pastiche of The Da Vinci Code a little heavy-handed, but I thought the references were just right, not such that you knew what was coming next, but that you could see the parallels. So what’s not to like? I think partly the problem is that Pratchett had set such high standards in his recent work that something that doesn’t quite reach those levels is likely to disappoint. Because I don’t think Thud! ever quite comes to the boil; there is a lot of time spent setting up a climax that never really arrives.

The plot is more complex than most Discworld stories. A dwarf, Grag Hamcrusher, has been murdered, and a troll is the prime suspect. The radicalisation of the dwarven community that had been suggested in earlier novels has accelerated, and all-out conflict with their eternal enemies, the trolls is imminent. Hamcrusher was a deep-downer, someone who believes dwarves should remain underground and avoid contact with other races. His murder couldn’t come at a worse time for Sam Vimes and the Watch, because it stokes tensions between Ankh-Morpork’s troll and dwarf communities just as the anniversary of the Battle Of Koom Valley approaches. This battle (or series of battles) happened centuries ago, but is still a cause for resentment between trolls and dwarfs, who now come into close daily contact on the streets of Ankh-Morpork. At first it looks like the deep-downers will obstruct the Watch’s enquiries, preferring to deal with it themselves, but Vimes persuades them to accept an investigation by Captain Carrot, human by birth, dwarf by upbringing. Carrot is assisted by the new recruit, Lance-Constable Sally von Humpeding, the Watch’s first vampire, as well as his werewolf partner, Sergeant Angua. Vampires and werewolves are traditionally the fiercest of rivals leading to tension between Angua and Sally.

Elsewhere in the city a painting has been stolen. This is a job for Corporal Nobbs and Sergeant Colon, Ankh-Morpork’s finest. The fifty-foot painting, The Battle of Koom Valley by Methodia Rascal, is believed to hold a clue to the treasure of Koom Valley. (Because as well as being the site of many battles between trolls and dwarves, Koom Valley also hides some lost treasure). Vetinari could not have chosen a worse time to send an auditor, A.E. Pessimal, into the Watch. This is one of the novel’s many misfires – Vetenari has shown every evidence previously of having confidence in Vimes and being willing to let him get on with his job, but now with Vimes at the head of a massively expanded Watch he sends in a book-keeper? Vetenari would already know everything he needed to know about the Watch, and sending in an auditor would be an admission of failure. Vimes would almost certainly have sent him packing instead of, as he does, meekly accepting his presence. The same applies for Vetenari and Vimes’s acceptance of someone who is obviously a spy into the Watch – they just wouldn’t have done that in previous novels.

And so it goes on – people not behaving quite like the characters Pratchett has spent years developing. Carrot goes missing from the text, with his investigation largely happening off-screen. Angua behaves like a spoiled child, and Vimes manages to completely ignore a summons from Vetenari, something that would have been unthinkable previously. There is a supernatural element to the novel – the Summoning Dark – which has strong echoes of the hiver in A Hat Full of Sky but which here seemed superfluous. The novel’s finale falls flat – the happy ever after resolution manages to be both predictable and unconvincing.

A mis-firing Pratchett is still head and shoulders above most novelists, and there is plenty to enjoy here. Sam Vimes’s character development is almost complete – he is now father to young Sam, and takes his story-reading duties just a little too seriously. Minor characters, such as Willikins, Sam’s dead-pan butler, is a joy (“My gods, man, you’re covered in blood!’ Sybil burst out. ‘Yes, your ladyship,’ said Willikins smoothly.  ‘May I say in mitigation that it is not, in fact, mine.’) and A E Pessimal the auditor turned blood-thirsty Watch recruit shows promise. Other more familiar characters seem to be on auto-pilot or go missing in action completely, and Tawnee, Nobby’s pole-dancing girlfriend is a mis-judged caricature.

Thud! is much loved by the vast majority of Discworld fans. It’s the only book I have ever seen with 0% one star ratings on both Goodreads and Amazon, which shows how well it is regarded. So who knows, I am probably missing some of the wonders of this novel, one of which is jokes like this variation on the Monty Python “What have the Romans ever given us?” sketch:

“War, Nobby. Huh! What is it good for?”
“Dunno, Sarge. Freeing slaves, maybe?”
“Absol-well okay.”
“Defending yourself against a totalitarian aggressor?”
“All right, I’ll grant you that, but-“
“Saving civilization from a horde of-“
“It doesn’t do any good in the long run is what I’m saying Nobby, if you’d listen for five seconds together.”

Book review: A Hat Full of Sky, (Discworld 32) by Sir Terry Pratchett, 2004

Books can help us navigate our way through life. People who don’t read can get on well of course, but having books with you along the way can help hugely. I can’t think of a greater challenge in life than the transition to adolescence, and I equally can’t imagine how amazing it would have been to have made that journey with the Tiffany Aching novels by my side. Because this series is about growing up, not in a self-conscious ‘so here’s how to deal with bullies’ way, but by sharing Tiffany’s story.

A Hat Full of Sky is the sequel to the Wee Free Men. Tiffany, now eleven, is leaving family and home to train as an apprentice witch. Leaving her beloved Chalk, the land of her childhood, is hard for her, leaving behind everything that is comfortable and familiar. She goes to live with Miss Level, a witch who has two bodies ( a nice twist on the split personality idea) and a poltergeist named Oswald who cleans the house (another clever inversion).

Tiffany’s powers are such that unknown to her she is being hunted by a dangerous magical creature, a hiver, an ancient parasitical paranormal entity. She is particularly vulnerable when she uses her powers to step outside her body, which she does innocently to look at herself.

Settling in to her new home she meets a group of apprentice witches – far from dying out, witchcraft in this part of the world seems to be thriving. As the new girl she faces the usual struggles of fitting in. The patronising and rude self-appointed leader of the group, Annagramma could be found in any playground in the world. Tiffany represents a potential challenger to her top-dog status, having already met Discworld’s greatest witch, Granny Weatherwax, and been given a hat by her, albeit an invisible one (hence the novel’s title). The other girls don’t believe her, and are mean. Upset by this encounter, Tiffany is vulnerable and is taken over by the hiver. Being possessed by the hiver makes her feel powerful but dangerous, almost like taking drugs?

You can read Tiffany’s struggles with the hiver as a metaphor for depression, anorexia, or any other mental health problem. Young women in particular are vulnerable to doubts about their value, even their identity. That vulnerability can leave them open to ideas or other things that are superficially empowering but nonetheless harmful. Pratchett doesn’t overwork this concept – Tiffany doesn’t self harm for example – but she does struggle internally with the hiver, trying to assert her identity. Her small cries for help aren’t heard by her friends, although the Feegles quickly work out what has happened. Without ever being patronising or spelling things out, I think Pratchett gives his readers some practical ideas on how to deal with these issues in a way that is probably far more helpful than the self-help books that address these issues head-on.

Fortunately, Tiffany has a trump card, the Nac Mac Feegles, wonderful, unruly pictsies, sworn under a geas to defend her from harm. I love the fact that Pratchett is happy to make the geas/geese pun (more than once), even though it is such a terrible dad-joke. Rob Anybody, fearless leader of the Feegles, magically travels into Tiffany’s mind to help her fight the hiver. He works out that smells from her past will allow her to break from the hiver’s control (the scenes where the Feegles collect the items needed – tobacco, alcohol and wool – are a wonderful diversion). Tiffany wrests back control but is left with the memories of the hiver’s previous victims, which she uses to give her strength, drawing on them for support. With the help of Granny Weatherwax, visiting for the Witch Trials, Tiffany comes to understand that the hiver is not something that she needs to defeat but to come to terms with. I think this all works really well as an extended metaphor for how to deal with mental health problems.

I’ve talked a lot about this book being a guide to growing up. But as with all Pratchett’s novels the wisdom it contains is for all ages. I found this paragraph on leaving home quite poignant:

Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colours. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.

And there’s also this advice, which initially appears to be quite witch-specific, but perhaps not:

“Always face what you fear. Have just enough money, never too much, and some string. Even if it’s not your fault, it’s your responsibility. Witches deal with things. Never stand between two mirrors. Never cackle. Do what you must do. Never lie, but you don’t always have to be honest. Never wish. Especially don’t wish upon a star, which is astronomically stupid. Open your eyes, and then open your eyes again”.

Finally, I have written many times about Pratchett’s ability to make me laugh out loud. Once again he managed to achieve this in the scene when Death appears, and is confronted by the pugnacious and profoundly loyal Rob Anybody:

“I WAS NOT EXPECTING A NAC MAC FEEGLE TODAY, said Death. OTHERWISE I WOULD HAVE WORN PROTECTIVE CLOTHING, HA HA.”

Glorious, precious, stuff. It’s easy to overlook the Tiffany Aching Discworld books as just for children, or ‘stories’ rather than novels, and I was probably guilty of this first time round, but now I am coming to appreciate them far more as fully-rounded additions to Sir Terry’s body of work.

Book review: How Steeple Sinderby Wanderers won the FA Cup, by J L Carr, 1975

J L Carr’s A Month in the Country is an under-appreciated masterpiece. The slightly earlier How Steeple Sinderby Wanderers won the FA Cup shows some of the promise seen in full bloom in the later novella, but has a comedic, not to say comic, premise that holds the author back from revealing his full potential.

How Steeple Sinderby Wanderers Won The F. A. Cup by J L Carr

The idea of a small village team winning the FA Cup is drawn directly from the pages of virtually every comic for boys ever written (the whole sub-genre is brilliantly caricatured in Viz’s Billy the Fish). Steeple Sinderby features every cliche from the genre going – the washed up ex-pro, the gifted midfielder with a tragic backstory, the unnaturally talented goalie with prehensile abilities, and the mysterious east European tactical genius.

I read once that J K Rowling hated having to write the scenes in her Harry Potter novels describing Quidditch matches (which explains why they were often called off). Carr may have felt trapped by the same logic of his scenario, because as the story progresses and the club proceed relentlessly to the final, the football games themselves become almost a sideshow. There is some fun with parodies of different commentary and reporting styles (In their primal gladiatorial tourney N. Baddesley jousting on their own bailiwick encountered the full and furious blast of Steeple Sinderby’s New Look Lads spearheaded by Sid Swift, long-lost Shooting Star idol of Brum fans a handful of time ago. The Ringers clocked up eleven strikes and only the inexorable march of time muffled a full peal of twelve), but there’s only so many ways you can describe an imaginary match.

But this really isn’t a football story. There are far more interesting things going on in the margins of the narrative, or perhaps along the touchlines. The narrator, Joe Gidner, having “had this trouble and left theological college”, lives in the village schoolmaster’s house, combining the writing of greetings-card verses and looking after his host’s invalid wife. He is also the club’s secretary, and is chosen to write the first draft of the history of the club’s victory, which this novel purports to be. He is an engaging almost whimsical narrator, and proves a helpful guide to the club’s adventures, the players’ and others’ back-stories, and the less than glamorous mid-1970’s setting in which football supporters’ violence is taken for granted.

Steeple Sinderby itself is a stereotypical English village, with all the charm but also all the flaws. Gidner tells us about its inhabitants, its entry in Pevsner’s Buildings of England and its one notable previous inhabitant, the peasant poet Thomas Dadds. The club’s chairman, Mr Fangfoss, is not interested in football but assumes the role because he is used to running everything. He is a bigot but sympathetically portrayed nonetheless, including his unorthodox marital arrangements.

Despite the team’s inevitable victory in the final, the novel ends in a downbeat manner.

“I often wish I could have known the end at the beginning, so that each detail could have been savored as it happened. But then, life isn’t a gramophone record one can play again and again […] It is Now or Never for most of us, and we haven’t the time.”

Everyone leaves either the club or the village, or both, Joe’s attempts to woo a young lady he is attracted to come to naught, and the club is wound up, in recognition that such heights will never be reached again. Joe’s story is one of missed opportunities, and the subtle whimsy of the story is overlaid with what felt like a somewhat manufactured nostalgia – the 1970’s were the present day when the book was written, village life was not really under threat, and football violence and the bigotry of Enoch Powell and the like with which it was often associated is nothing to be nostalgic about. So I was left unconvinced by this novella despite its many charms.

Book Review: The Elected Member by Bernice Rubens, 1970

This 1970 Booker winner opens with the following quote:

“If patients are disturbed, their families are often very disturbing.”

This really tells you all you need to know about this novel. The central character, Norman Zweck, is mentally ill, and his illness can be traced directly back to his profoundly dysfunctional family.

The Elected Member by Rubens, Bernice Paperback Book The Cheap Fast Free Post

Norman comes from a traditional Jewish family. His father came to London from Lithuania with just a suitcase and a name and address written on a scrap of paper. Despite being forty Norman lives at home (and indeed has never left) with the ghost of his controlling mother and his weak-willed father. His older sister, Bella, still lives at home as well and wears ankle socks every day as a vivid reminder of her frozen adolescence. Younger sister Laura left home and married outside their religion, and has therefore been expelled from the family circle – mention of her name is forbidden.

The primary symptom of Norman’s mental illness is that he sees silverfish crawling everywhere. It’s a horribly and vividly realised psychosis, and it cripples him, leaving him unable to leave his bedroom, work, or sustain a relationship.

We slowly learn the details of the family history through the reminiscences of the characters as they react to Norman’s most recent breakdown. He is addicted to amphetamines, although the precise cocktail of drugs and childhood trauma that leads to his illness is not ever entirely resolved. However his family are unable to cope, so on the advice of the family doctor they have him committed to a psychiatric hospital for treatment. Here he quickly finds someone ready to sell him more amphetamines, meaning any treatment is unlikely to work. Back home his family suffers feelings of guilt that they have not been able to help him. Bella, we eventually find out, had an incestuous relationship with her brother. Laura ran away from a relationship with Norman’s best friend, David, who we are given to understand (without it ever being made explicit) was his lover. Thoughts of and actual suicides haunt the novel, giving it a structure in which we come to see that the mental institution Norman is committed to is very similar to the home he was unable to leave.

The novel’s title is puzzling. One of Norman’s fellow inmates in the hospital has delusions he is in the Cabinet, although he is always referred to as Minister rather than the elected member, or any variation thereof, and in any event is a relatively peripheral character upon which to name the novel. The title could refer to Norman being the chosen one, the golden boy on whom the hopes of his family came to rest – he was gifted with languages, and qualified as a barrister – although the ‘member’ element of the title still escapes me.

Bernice Rubens had a long writing career, and most of her many novels remain in print, so there must be an audience for them somewhere. But whilst I found The Elected Member a largely inoffensive read, it left me with no appetite for following up with anything else by this author.

Book Review: Don’t Believe a Word, by David Shariatmadari, 2019

Don’t Believe a Word is subtitled “From Myths to Misunderstandings – How Language Really Works” which is a pretty bold claim, and one I suspect Shariatmadari would probably disavow. Because this is much more a summary of the current state of research into some of the larger issues around language acquisition and use than anything approaching a comprehensive final set of answers to some of the difficult questions about this issue.

Because language is profoundly mysterious. How we as a species came to uniquely acquire the power of language is endlessly fascinating, and I was hoping for something that attempted to described the processes whereby we went from the simple sounds required to warn of predators or communicate during a hunt to the infinitely more complex process I am using to write these sentences, however inelegantly. Unfortunately the author really only skims these issues for the safer, more familiar ground of why language is not ‘going to the dogs’ or the differences between languages, dialects and ideolects.

The structure for the book is that each chapter is intended to expose a common myth about language. Demonstrating that standards of English are not declining, and never have, is done easily enough, by quoting the same complaint made across the centuries. Older people will always feel alienated from the language of the young who are much more innovative in their use of language, and will use their positions of authority that come with age to define standard English and try to shame younger people into conformity. Which means I can look forward to hopefully one day hearing the incessant use of the word ‘like’ as a meaningless filler to become the ‘correct’ way of expressing oneself, and youngsters chastised for not using it appropriately.

Each generation will think of itself as exceptional, and find reasons why the language they are using is different from that of their predecessors. Much of this is down to the rapid spread of technology which introduces words and ideas simply not required before. I am grateful to the author for bringing to my attention this brilliant summary of the issue from the wonderful Douglas Adams (from The Salmon of Doubt):

1. Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
2. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
3. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.”

Another ‘myth’ Shariatmadari addresses is the idea that foreign languages have untranslatable words. Is that really a language myth that needs to be challenged, or just a bit of fun on the internet that no-one takes particularly seriously? Yes it makes other cultures sound sound quaint or bizarre. and can contribute to the ‘othering’ of foreigners. But other cultures are often profoundly different from our own (not better or worse, just different) so it would be surprising if they didn’t have words for things we use phrases or sentences to describe.

There’s a thoughtful discussion of whether our languages shape how we think, rather than the other way round. Those of us exposed to George Orwell’s thesis (in 1984) that we need a language of nuance and expression to articulate concepts such as democracy will be open to the idea that we need words to explain ideas before those ideas can exist. But mentioning Orwell brings me to a minor quibble with this book. In the chapter on whether language is deteriorating, the author cites Orwell as “clearly wrong when he imagined that language would become decadent and ‘share in the general collapse’ of civilisation unless hard work was done to repair it.” The text Shariatmadari is quoting here is not cited, but the internet being the wonderful thing it is I easily found it in Politics and the English Language. Now you won’t find a better. more powerfully argued essay in favour of clear writing in politics that this. Shariatmadari unfairly dismisses it because Orwell opens with the deliberately contentious argument that:

Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it. Our civilization is decadent and our language — so the argument runs — must inevitably share in the general collapse.

Orwell, Politics and the English Language, 1946

To break one of Orwell’s prime rules (‘never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print’) this is throwing the baby out with the bathwater. All Orwell is arguing is that bad writing about politics is often bad for specific reasons: “to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind”. Which is surely a more important point than the one he is being discredited with?

Later, Shariatmadari gives a respectful, if sceptical account of Noam Chomsky’s universal grammar theory. The idea that humans are born with an innate language ability far in advance of any other skill or ability in life (compare the struggles we have to walk or feed ourselves) has yet to be proven beyond all doubt, but the alternative, that language is “a medium that is formed as it is used … a road that is paved at the same time as we walk it” seems inadequate when contrasted with the other clumsy abilities we develop as children. If you want a primer on Universal Grammar and the current research on the theory this is not a bad place to start.

Overall this is an entertaining, accessible and well-evidenced summary of the state of linguistics as it is currently understood. As with the book I recently read on genetics, I left this with the impression that there is still a lot of research to be done on this subject, and that our understanding of ‘how language really works’ is as elusive as ever.

Book review: In a German Pension, by Katherine Mansfield, 1911

In a German Pension joins that small subset of books that the author didn’t want to see republished. It was Katherine Mansfield’s first published collection, although most of the stories had been previously published in various magazines. Because of the war and problems with the publisher (it went into liquidation) the book was quickly forgotten, and when the idea of republishing it was later floated by her then husband, John Middleton Murry, Mansfield refused. She considered the stories juvenalia and feared, I am sure rightly, that they would contribute to post-war anti-German sentiment.

In a German Pension: 13 Stories by Katherine Mansfield

Have the stories weathered the passage of the following century, or should Mansfield’s wishes have been respected? I would strongly argue the former – the tone of the collection might be uneven, and some of the portraits are caricatures, but overall this is a powerful group of stories in which the focus is not so much the German residents of the pension (a boarding house) with which the earlier stories are concerned, but the role of women in German and European society in the later stories which emerges as a more dominant theme.

The stories were written after her stay in a German spa before the first world war broke out. Mansfield was there to recuperate after a miscarriage. The collection is formed of thirteen stories, some only a few pages long, with the whole collection barely a hundred pages in total. The early stories are slightly whimsical observations of the characters in the pension, observed by a narrator who captures the chatter of the residents with the minimum of commentary. The Germans are boorish and judgmental towards the English narrator, although already the themes of maternity and women’s role in society are beginning to emerge:

“Is it true,” asked the Widow, picking her teeth with a hairpin as she spoke, “that you are a vegetarian?”

“Why, yes; I have not eaten meat for three years.”

“Im—possible! Have you any family?”

“No.”

“There now, you see, that’s what you’re coming to! Who ever heard of having children upon vegetables? It is not possible. But you never have large families in England now; I suppose you are too busy with your suffragetting. Now I have had nine children, and they are all alive, thank God. Fine, healthy babies—though after the first one was born I had to—”

“How wonderful!” I cried.

“Wonderful,” said the Widow contemptuously, replacing the hairpin in the knob which was balanced on the top of her head. “Not at all! A friend of mine had four at the same time. Her husband was so pleased he gave a supper-party and had them placed on the table. Of course she was very proud.”

This is carefully nuanced writing. What is not said is as important as what is, and the reader is able to gain a picture of the narrator’s situation without it ever being made explicit. After a few more short stories in which German attitudes to class are lightly mocked, the collection takes a more serious turn. Frau Brechenmacher Attends a Wedding is a chilling portrait of an abusive marriage. Herr Brechenmacher is a bully who orders his wife around. She has five children under the age of nine, but is looking forward to a night off attending a wedding celebration. This is how the author closes the story:

“They walked home in silence. Herr Brechenmacher strode ahead, she stumbled after him. White and forsaken lay the road from the railway station to their house—a cold rush of wind blew her hood from her face, and suddenly she remembered how they had come home together the first night. Now they had five babies and twice as much money; but

“Na, what is it all for?” she muttered, and not until she had reached home, and prepared a little supper of meat and bread for her man did she stop asking herself that silly question.

Herr Brechenmacher broke the bread into his plate, smeared it round with his fork and chewed greedily.

“Good?” she asked, leaning her arms on the table and pillowing her breast against them.

“But fine!”

He took a piece of the crumb, wiped it round his plate edge, and held it up to her mouth. She shook her head.

“Not hungry,” she said.

“But it is one of the best pieces, and full of the fat.”

He cleared the plate; then pulled off his boots and flung them into a corner.

“Not much of a wedding,” he said, stretching out his feet and wriggling his toes in the worsted socks.

“N—no,” she replied, taking up the discarded boots and placing them on the oven to dry.

Herr Brechenmacher yawned and stretched himself, and then looked up at her, grinning.

“Remember the night that we came home? You were an innocent one, you were.”

“Get along! Such a time ago I forget.” Well she remembered.

“Such a clout on the ear as you gave me…. But I soon taught you.”

“Oh, don’t start talking. You’ve too much beer. Come to bed.”

He tilted back in his chair, chuckling with laughter.

“That’s not what you said to me that night. God, the trouble you gave me!”

But the little Frau seized the candle and went into the next room. The children were all soundly sleeping. She stripped the mattress off the baby’s bed to see if he was still dry, then began unfastening her blouse and skirt.

“Always the same,” she said—“all over the world the same; but, God in heaven—but stupid.”

Then even the memory of the wedding faded quite. She lay down on the bed and put her arm across her face like a child who expected to be hurt as Herr Brechenmacher lurched in.”

That last line is like a punch in the face – “She lay down on the bed and put her arm across her face like a child who expected to be hurt”. The narrative is now much darker. Women are cursed with eternal pregnancies which are dangerous and potentially fatal (“my insides are all twisted up with having children too quickly” on character observes) and children are a burden not a joy. The stories are often told from the perspective of servants who are also oppressed, a situation which finds its apotheosis in The Child Who Was Tired, in which an exhausted child is expected to be the principal carer for her younger siblings, and finds the burden too much:

“I don’t believe Holy Mary could keep him quiet,” she murmured. “Did Jesus cry like this when He was little? If I was not so tired perhaps I could do it; but the baby just knows that I want to go to sleep. And there is going to be another one.”

She flung the baby on the bed, and stood looking at him with terror.

From the next room there came the jingle of glasses and the warm sound of laughter.

And she suddenly had a beautiful marvellous idea.

She laughed for the first time that day, and clapped her hands.

“Ts—ts—ts!” she said, “lie there, silly one; you will go to sleep. You’ll not cry any more or wake up in the night. Funny, little, ugly baby.”

He opened his eyes, and shrieked loudly at the sight of the Child-Who-Was-Tired. From the next room she heard the Frau call out to her.

“One moment—he is almost asleep,” she cried.

And then gently, smiling, on tiptoe, she brought the pink bolster from the Frau’s bed and covered the baby’s face with it, pressed with all her might as he struggled, “like a duck with its head off, wriggling”, she thought.

She heaved a long sigh, then fell back on to the floor, and was walking along a little white road with tall black trees on either side, a little road that led to nowhere, and where nobody walked at all—nobody at all.”

Powerful, distressing stuff. Mansfield may have wanted to forget this collection when she moved on to later work, but I am glad these stories remain in print. The anti-German sentiment has faded and we can now see these stories as a very personal and rather touching narrative.

The collection can be read online for free here.

Book review: The Blind Assassin, by Margaret Atwood, 2000

Novel the blind assassin cover.jpg

The structure of this novel is fascinating. The principal thread holding it together is a first person narration by the novel’s central character, Iris Chase. In her old age she writes a memoir for her grand-daughter. Her narrative recalls memories of her childhood and the early years of her unhappy marriage to a Toronto businessman, Richard Griffen. She also describes her present-day life in Port Ticonderoga, her Canadian home-town, dependent on the goodwill of her friend Myra for her everyday needs. Interspersed with this narrative is the text of a novel, The Blind Assassin, apparently written by Iris’s sister Laura, and published posthumously just after the end of the second world war. The Blind Assassin itself contains a third narrative, a pulp science fantasy story – and it is this story which is the tale of the eponymous blind assassin. This might sound an overly complex structure, but it is easy to follow once you understand the conventions Atwood uses to signal which of the stories we are being told.

Intertwined narratives of this kind are not that new or innovative – A S Byatt’s 1990 Possession does something quite similar. What is so striking about this novel is the way Atwood draws together the threads of her stories and step by step reveals the truth underlying the initial presentation. It will come as no surprise to hear that Iris is an unreliable narrator and it is the contrast between her account and her sister’s novel, slowly revealed to be based on real life, which allows a truth to emerge. Again, this concept of there being a ‘true’ narrative hiding behind the lies and misrepresentations offered by the narrator is not entirely new, but it is done with considerable skill here.

Atwood uses one other device to drive the narrative. Key moments of the story are revealed through newspaper stories. We are told about the premature deaths of central characters. The novel therefore becomes a mystery story – we are less interested in what happens, but why, and how the events are related to one another.

The temptation in reviews of this kind is to take a retrospective view of the events of the novel and to flatten them out – to present them in a linear chronological fashion, whereas the presentation within the novel is complex and at times even chaotic. So if I were to tell you the story of the Chase sisters, their wealthy manufacturing family, Iris’s unhappy marriage to Toronto manufacturing tycoon Richard Griffen, etc, it would all be true, but it would give a distorted version of the novel. Sometimes such summaries are useful, when it is hard to follow the plot or where there is uncertainty about some of the detail (this is particularly true of those novels spanning generations where everyone seems to have at least three different interchangeable names!). But here I think I will pass – plot summaries are easy to find online if required, but would reduce this novel to a story, which would be reductive and misleading.

I found it interesting to compare this novel in all its complexity to Atwood’s 1972 novel Surfacing, It clearly demonstrates her growth as a novelist – while Surfacing is a convincing portrait of one woman’s mental deterioration, the contrast with The Blind Assassin makes it look superficial and incomplete.

I have disagreed with the choices of the Booker judges many times over the years, but this must have been one of the simpler choices they ever had to make.

Supplemental: A closer look at Alec D’Urberville

I wanted to take a closer look at the portrait of Alec D’Urberville in Thomas Hardy’s Tess. Alec is an archetypal rogue of fiction, one in a long line of roues that can be traced back to Robert Lovelace in Richardson’s Clarissa and beyond. These men are always attractive, but dangerous and amoral. Alec is largely a two-dimensional character. As early as Chapter 12 he tells Tess

I suppose I am a bad fellow—a damn bad fellow. I was born bad, and I have lived bad, and I shall die bad, in all probability.” (77).

So one has to ask, is there anything else to him than a symbol of male oppression and sinfulness?

I’m going to look more closely at how Hardy represents Alec. When he first meets Tess he is dressed as a young country gent:

“The driver was a young man of 3 or 4 and twenty, with a cigar between his teeth; wearing a dandy cap, drab jacket, breeches of the same hue, white neckcloth, stick-up collar, and brown driving gloves” (52).

Earlier we are told he has “a well-groomed black moustache with curled points” which completes the picture – this is someone confident in his appearance and his attractiveness to the opposite sex, over-dressed for the role of driver. This establishes a template for virtually every time Alec appears – he is never recognised straightaway by Tess. Or to be more precise his identity is never immediately acknowledged by the narrator, usually because he appears in disguise.

If Tess and Angel are consistently characterised as Adam and Eve, both before and after the Fall, Alec is the tempter. In his multiple disguises he promises her riches or a better life.

“”About the children – your brothers and sisters,” he resumed. “I’ve been thinking about them”. Tess’s heart quivered – he was touching her in a weak place. Since returning home her soul had gone out to those children with an affection that was passionate.....if your mother does not recover, somebody ought to do something for them; since your father will not be able to do much I suppose”.

(Tess angrily rejects him, and in response )

“D’Urberville in anger retreated from her to the hedge, where he pulled off the long smockfrock and red neckerchief which had mainly disguised him”.

350

He disappears from the narrative for a several chapters while Tess and Angel are falling in love at the dairy, only to return in dramatic fashion. At the end of chapter 44, coming back from an unsuccessful visit to Angel’s parents, Tess meets Alec preaching to a small crowd. He is a reformed man and has found god. She hears him before she sees him, and it dawns on her that the voice, preaching “a vehement form of the views of Angel’s father” is that of Alec. (305-6). From this point he begins to haunt Tess, seeking her out time and again. He next appears (314) as “a black speck” and is “perceived to be a man in black…in a semi-clerical costume(my emphasis). He tracks her down to her cottage, and then pesters her while she works on a threshing machine:

“Just before the dinner-hour a person had come silently into the field by the gate, and had been standing under a second rick watching the scene, and Tess in particular. He was dressed in a tweed suit of fashionable pattern, and he twirled a gay walking-cane”. (327).

We don’t have long to wait before Alec resumes his persistent attempts to persuade Tess to resume her relationship with him. She returns home to Marlott where her mother has been taken ill. One evening she is working on the family’s small-holding when she becomes aware of someone working alongside her in the twilight:

Tess did not speak to her fellow-worker, nor did he speak to her. Nor did she think of him further than to recollect that he had not been there when it was broad daylight….by and by he dug so close to her that the fire-beams were reflected as distinctly from the steel prongs of his fork as from her own. On going up to the fire to throw a pitch of dead weeds upon it, she found that he did the same, on the other side, the fire flared up, and she beheld the face of D’Urberville. “

Alec’s demonic appearance, pitchfork and all, is re-emphasised. Once again he is in disguise – almost one might say in fancy dress:

“The unexpectedness of his presence, the grotesqueness of his appearance in a gathered smockfrock, such as was now worn only by the most old-fashioned of the labourers, had a ghastly comicality that chilled her as to its bearing. …

“A jester might say this is just like paradise. You are Eve, and I am the old Other One come to tempt you in the disguise of an inferior animal. I used to be quite up in that scene of Milton’s when I was theological.”

349

Their penultimate meeting is in Kingsbere church, among the tombs of the ancient D’Urbervilles. Tess is looking round the old church, home to her ancestors:

“She musingly tuned to withdraw, passing near an altar-tomb, the oldest of them all, on which was a recumbent figure. In the dusk she had not noticed it before, and would have hardly noticed it now but for an odd fancy that the effigy moved. As soon as she drew close to it she discovered all in a moment that the figure was a living person; and the shock of her sense of not having been alone was so violent that she was quite overcome, and sank down nigh to fainting, not however till she had recognised Alec D’Urberville in the form.

(363).

What are we to make of this presentation of Alec? The references to his demonic appearance aren’t that hard to decode (!) but the narrator’s persistent failure to identify him on his first appearance in each scene is more problematic. Is this just a stylistic quirk, a way of allowing the reader to guess his identity before it is confirmed, giving the false impression that the reader is slightly ahead of the narrator in their understanding of the story? Possibly, but if this was all that is going on it would be quite a tired device. When a mysterious stranger appears in the Sherlock Holmes stories (by comparison) the real surprise is when it is not Holmes in disguise. We quickly learn that it will be Alec who appears out of the gathering darkness whenever someone appears.

With regard to his disguises and costumes, I think these are a way for the author to signal Alec’s instability and unpredictability, the mercurial nature of his character and his insincerity. He presents himself to the world in the way he wants to be seen, and when that character has served its purpose it is discarded. He may even be sincere in his presentation, but it is no less shallow and superficial for all that. It is this that makes him so dangerous.

Literature has worse villains than Alec D’Urberville, but it is hard to feel sorry for him when Tess finally extracts the retribution he has coming to him.

I’d be interested what any readers of this post make of Alec – is there more to him than the stage-villain with a curled moustache and a cloak?