Jakob Wassermann, Caspar Hauser

Jakob Wassermann, Caspar Hauser. Penguin Twentieth-century Classics, 1992. Paperback, 382 pp. Translated from the German by Michael Hulse. First published with the subtitle ‘Die Trägheit des Herzens’ (Inertia of the Heart), 1908

I remember feeling disturbed and puzzled by Werner Herzog’s 1974 film ‘The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser’ when it was released in England. It told the strange story of the ‘wolf boy’ or feral youth who wandered into the city of Nuremberg in 1828 bearing a letter requesting he be taken to the home of a local cavalry officer. He could speak just a little broken German, and seemed barely able to walk. With typical weirdness, Herzog cast an unknown street musician in his forties to play the teenage lead.

J Wassermann Caspar Hauser cover

The cover shows ‘Sleeping Schoolboy’ by Jean Baptiste Greuze

This novel by Jakob Wassermann includes most of the information known about Caspar Hauser’s life. When he was taken in and taught to read and write by a local schoolteacher, he was able to articulate his story. He claimed to have been incarcerated in a tiny cell for as long as he could remember. He was brought bread and water by a mysterious man who never revealed his face. He never saw the outside world, and had only a toy horse as company.

He became a minor celebrity. Rumours arose that he was a descendant of the dukes of Baden, and that he’d been imprisoned for reasons that gave rise to all kinds of speculation. Wassermann also shows that Caspar was suspected of being a fraud, and had made up this bizarre story – though it’s not clear why he would have done that.

Wassermann is less interested in providing a clear account of Caspar’s origins, or of the veracity of his story, than he is in the portrayal of a pure spirit, untainted by contact with corrupt humanity. In this account he’s a natural, an innocent, of the kind that intrigued the Romantic poets. He could also be seen as a sort of counterpart to the Frankenstein creature, but one created by Nature, not science.

For much of my teaching career I taught linguistics as well as literature. There’s a range of fascinating theories about child language acquisition. One of the most widely propounded (but not universally accepted) is Lenneberg’s theory (1967) of the ‘critical period’. This is the view that children are able to assimilate the language and behaviour they witness as they grow up, but this capacity diminishes once they pass a certain age, usually held to be around puberty. If deprived of such interaction, their cognitive ability doesn’t develop. This seems to be Caspar’s condition.

The sad case of the American girl known as Genie is often cited in this connection. At the age of thirteen she came to the attention of the welfare system of California. It emerged that she had been kept strapped for much of her life into a chair by her deranged father, who never spoke to her or allowed her to interact with others. When the authorities took over her upbringing, she acquired some basic social skills, but never became a fluent first language speaker – hence her importance for those who favour the critical period theory: she’d passed the age when language acquisition comes naturally.

I’ve seen two of my grandsons, now aged five and seven, become fluent in English, their father’s language, and Spanish, their mother’s. They attend a school just outside Barcelona where the teaching medium is Catalan; they’re now fluent speakers of that language, too. Yet adults usually struggle to become even partially proficient when learning a second language.

Caspar was 17 when he started to be socialised and taught language skills, so unless the critical period age limit is stretched implausibly, his case doesn’t really fit with the theory. On the contrary, his rapid acquisition of fluency in speaking and literacy would appear to support the views of the local sceptics who thought he was putting on an act.

Wassermann raises some of these issues, but ultimately prefers to focus on the young man’s astonishing sensitivity to stimuli, seemingly unfeigned intense emotional reactions to social and other situations, and apparent longing to find his mother. An English earl turns up and takes an unusual interest in him, and encourages Caspar to believe he will adopt him, take him back to England, and introduce him to his longed-for mother. Other events intervene, and dark forces exert strange influences on him – or is he a liar?

Quite a lot happens in Wassermann’s account of Caspar’s short life after his enigmatic appearance. Unfortunately, these dramatic incidents are widely spaced, with a great deal of rather ponderous intervening commentary and reflection on Caspar’s nature. The German author manages to render a fascinating story a bit stilted and wordy: I found the long narrative dragged, and had to skip sections.

This isn’t the fault of the translation by Michael Hulse. Wassermann writes in the mannered, verbose style of the previous century.

 

Recent events – and a grumpy gull

We’ve just said goodbye to our two English grandchildren, who came for their first visit in over a year. We hadn’t seen them since last August, so it was lovely to be together again. Lockdown restrictions eased recently, meaning we could start meeting other people indoors again. The weather was finally summery, and we were able to go to the beach. Mrs TD and the kids’ mum, who came for the final two days, went for a swim, joined by the 12-year-old granddaughter, but the water was a bit too cold for me.

Last week we paid our first social visit since before Christmas. Our friends who live nearby, the owners of those fine cats Iggy and Phoebe (they’ve featured a few times in the blog), invited us for coffee and cake. It was such a relief to mix with other people indoors, relax and enjoy stimulating conversation.

We admired their artworks, in particular a strange, vividly coloured crucifixion scene. They told us the artist was a Scot, Craigie Aitchison (1926-2009). They explained that the little dog looking up at the Christ figure, who returned its gaze, was the artist’s much loved Bedlington terrier. He features in many of his works, they told us.

Craigie Aitchison mural treeWe took the grandchildren to Truro cathedral during the week to seek out the four Aitchison murals our friends told us were to be seen there. The style is very distinctive, with vibrant bands of colour and stark, strangely mystical images of the crucifixion scene.

This first one appears to be a tree, perhaps the one that provided the timber for the cross on which the crucifixion took place.

To its left is the first of the scenes depicting Christ on the cross. The same vivid bands of colour form the basis of the image. At the foot of Craigie Aitchison mural cross and dogthe cross, instead of the usual human figures (mourners, soldiers), the little dog walks up to it, perky ears raised. The Christ figure appears to hang from one limp arm on the crossbeam, head bowed.

Next to this is the first image of the Christ figure looking straight out at the viewer. The dog now looks lovingly up at him. A star shines brightly in the sky above, and streaks of light or energy emanate from the figure on the cross. A blue bird – presumably symbolising the holy spirit, perches companionably next to the figure’s left hand.

Craigie Aitchison mural crucifixion

The mural on the far left of the four panels is a sort of mirror image of the first. This time the Christ figure’s right arm hangs over the crossbeam. The dog is no longer present.

Craigie Aitchison mural far leftI’m not sure how to read all the imagery, but each picture glows with a quiet energy. Despite the painful iconography, the simplicity and…I don’t know…charm of the scenes leaves me with a sense of happiness and hope. I’m not a Christian, but I can respond to the serenity of these images.

Grumpy gull FalmouthAfter our trip to the beach, we took the children to Falmouth docks, where we hoped to see the Estonian cruise ship that’s to be the floating hotel for some of the hundreds of extra police officers being brought in to police the area for the G7 conference. This takes place next week in Carbis Bay, near St Ives. The ship wasn’t there, but I liked the grumpy expression of this seagull perched on the railings above the docks.

Buttercup fieldWhen the children had left for home with our daughter yesterday we went for one of our local walks. Here to end this post is a view of the horses’ field that’s featured in previous posts, now a mass of shimmering yellow buttercups, with pink clover among them. A circling buzzard overhead isn’t discernible in my picture, but it’s good to know it was there, keeping an eye on things below. Despite the rather hazy focus, I hope it’s still possible to see the beauty of nature.

Back to books next time (probably).

 

 

 

Summer is come

This will probably be the last post of May: our two English grandchildren are coming to stay tomorrow – the first time we’ll have seen them for seven months.

This handsome great spotted woodpecker has become addicted to the fancy fatballs I’ve been putting in the bird feeder; he gets through one or two a day, costing me a fortune. The long-tailed tits like them, too. They come in little busy gangs.

Here then is a range of pictures taken yesterday, when here in Cornwall was the only part of the country covered in thick cloud. Elsewhere summer had finally arrived, after a miserably wet, cold month. It’s a week when our feckless PM’s sinister former adviser spilled the beans about the chaos and ineptitude our government has shown most of the time in dealing with the pandemic in the UK. Among his criticisms was the transparently false claim by the health minister that he’d put a ‘ring of steel’ round care homes, when infected elderly patients were being discharged without Covid tests into those same homes.

Let’s lighten the tone. First, the birds have been a constant source of delight during this unseasonably chilly late spring. I’ve still not seen any swallows, swifts or martins around my city, but I’ve posted recently about seeing some a little further afield.

Weeping tree umbrellaYesterday’s walk in the local park took me underneath this wonderful tree’s canopy. It’s a weeping something or other – beech?

Standing there felt like being in a green tent. Just a pity that the sky was grey, not blue.

These vivid yellow flowers grow in the hedge just down the road from our house. According to my plant identifier app they’re autumn hawkbit. I’m not sure about this: should they be flowering in late May, with a name like that?Autumn hawkbit

LilyAt the end of our road are some lovely gardens – I’ve posted pictures recently of some of the gorgeous spring blooms in them. These lovely lilies (I think they’re lilies of some kind) started flowering just over a week ago. What a colour!

 

A few houses away from us is this garden wall. I rather like this strange plant growing implausibly out of the mortar. I presume it’s some kind of lichen.

This morning the sun finally shone – though there are still some clouds around.

 These beautiful roses are growing in a pot outside our front door. The buds are pink and white, but the blooms are pure white when in full flower. So that’s it for this May. I’ve just finished reading Jakob Wasserman’s strange, gothic novel Caspar Hauser. When I’ve figured out if I was bored or enthralled by it I’ll post here – once the grandchildren have gone home next week.

I don’t want to marry a lighthouse keeper

Emma Stonex, The Lamplighters. Picador hardback, 2021, 355 pp.

This was another of the books I bought for Mrs TD for her recent birthday. After she’d read it she passed it on to her sister. They both had reservations about it, and asked me to read it so we could compare responses. I wasn’t impressed either.

Emma Stonex The Lamplighters cover The ‘lamp’ in the title is a fictitious tower lighthouse off SW Cornwall. Such lighthouses are more challenging for the keepers, as there’s no space around the tower as there is on an island lighthouse. This means the three men who tend the lamp are confined together in a claustrophobic atmosphere that becomes very charged.

The story is set in 1972, when the three keepers go missing. The relief boat’s occupants find the lighthouse empty. The door is locked and barred from the inside, and there’s a meal set on the kitchen table – it’s like the Marie Celeste. The two clocks have both stopped at 8:45.

The lighthouse on Eilean Mor

The lighthouse on Eilean Mor (Flannan Isles): attribution –
Marc Calhoun, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

It’s a classic ‘locked room (murder?) mystery’, then. With a hint of the supernatural: strange white birds seem to haunt the place. There’s an epigraph at the start from the 1912 poem by WW Gibson, ‘Flannan Isle’, about a similarly strange disappearance of three lighthouse keepers from a Victorian lighthouse off the Outer Hebrides. I remember reading it at school: it left a deep impression on me. The three black seabirds – too large to be shags, says the poem, hinting at something sinister – seem to be the vanished keepers transformed. They were never seen again.

Trident House, the organisation that administers the Cornish lighthouse, is intent on covering up what happened to the three men, and pays the widows hush money, admonishing them not to speak to outside investigators (like a local author, who has reasons of his own for investigating what happened). All kinds of outlandish theories about what happened to the men are aired, some of them as far-fetched as those that followed the Flannan Isle disappearance. Spectral figures and supernatural emanations are described – but these could also be a consequence of the keepers’ enforced solitude and increasingly fragile sanity.

There’s probably a good short story or novella in here somewhere. I found the novel much too long, however. It’s structured in alternating time periods: 1972, in which the events leading up to the disappearance are narrated, from the viewpoint of the three keepers, and 1992, when the local writer interviews the widows of the two older men, and the woman who’d been the youngest’s girlfriend at the time.

All three men have secrets and clandestine motives for either doing away with the others, or for feeling threatened by criminal or other menacing outside forces. A visit from a man purporting to be a repair engineer becomes a sort of demonic intrusion – he seems to know all their secrets. The women have tensions of their own between them too. Infidelity and jealousy are rife.

It should be a riveting thriller – but it’s often slack and unengaging. The narrative is flat and often tone deaf, despite some vivid descriptions of the seascapes. Dialogue is strangely listless. The boredom of the men’s routine seeps into the narrative in ways that renders it tedious.

If Emma Stonex had trimmed the length considerably this could have worked as a Stephen King kind of mystery with spooky overtones. It’s become a top ten bestseller. Maybe I’m missing something, but I’d rather read Barbara Pym or Anita Brookner.

PS The novel reminded me (incongruously, given the darkness of its plot) of that jaunty, cheesy song ‘I want to marry a lighthouse keeper’. I couldn’t remember who sang it; an online search brought up someone called Erika Eigen. Funny, I’d remembered it by someone more famous, but can’t recall who I had in mind. Apparently the song featured in Stanley Kubrick’s film A Clockwork Orange – but it’s so long ago that I saw that, I have no recollection of it there. Wikipedia suggests it’s used to show the shallow, trivial taste of Alex’s parents when he’s brought home after the horrific shock treatment to rid him of his violent tendencies. No more Beethoven for him.

Dangerous charmers: Anita Brookner, Look At Me

Anita Brookner, Look At Me. Penguin paperback, 2016. First published 1983

Friendship is the antidote to loneliness. Reciprocated love is an even more effective one. Frances is lonely, and craves the friendship and love she feels she deserves. After a humiliating, debasing affair with a married man – she’s naïve in some ways, but not ‘innocent’ – she ‘wanted contentment…the chance to be simple again.’ She thinks she’s found the stimulating acceptance she longs for when she’s taken up by the superficially charming, glamorous Fraser couple.

Anita Brookner Look At Me coverNick Fraser is a doctor, ‘distinguished by that grace and confidence of manner that assures success’. He’s a specialist in depression, who frequents the medical reference library where Frances works. Oddly, this library specialises in the cataloguing of images and texts about the ‘problems of human behaviour’. Frances ponders the disturbing visual representations (Dürer’s seems to be one of them) of melancholy (a condition with which Frances is acquainted) and madness.

There’s a good account of the novel in Jacqui’s review and the Backlisted podcast (links at the end). Frances is another of Brookner’s quietly spirited but diffident, lonely spinsters (‘well behaved and rather observant – a bad combination’ she remarks about herself, with characteristically shrewd deprecation), whose hopes for fulfilment are raised by the opportunities life seems to offer, only to have them dashed.

Frances is a writer, and Look At Me is as much a novel about ‘the business of writing’ as it is about the frustrations and bitterness of the lonely. She confides that she writes stories based on the eccentric characters she observes fastidiously at her library in ‘an attempt to reach others and to make them love you’. Only when she writes does she feel she has a voice.

But does she write also as a consequence of all the solitary days and hours she has to fill somehow? Or does the occupation of a writer require solitude?

It’s a dilemma that reminds me of Tennyson’s Lady of Shalott. This poem can be interpreted as a representation of the writer’s dilemma. The Lady is cursed to live alone and remote in a tower, doomed never to be able even to look directly at the living world outside her window, which she longs to participate in. Instead she has to resort to gazing at the reflection of life in her mirror. When she defies the curse and looks lovingly on the dazzling knight Lancelot, she inevitably dies, unloved.

The writer, then, is condemned (cursed) to live in a solitary panopticon, observing and anatomising the teeming life outside, but doomed never to participate fully in it. She can’t have it both ways. ‘Claustration’ is a key word in Frances’ vocabulary about her life.

If Look At Me were a Barbara Pym novel – for it shares many of the features of Pym’s fictional world, including the beautifully written prose and the wit and humour – there wouldn’t be such dire consequences of the protagonist’s misreadings and misunderstandings of her experiences with other people.

Alix, Nick’s ‘equally dazzling’ wife, is the crueller and more selfish of the manipulative, parasitic Fraser couple. They use people to create an audience that envies and thus validates their ersatz lives. Alix engineers a relationship between Frances and another of the doctors from the library, mostly it seems to amuse herself in watching two eager to please people she’s pushed into a budding romance in ways they barely comprehend or have the emotional equipment to cope with. She then destroys what she created, like a wanton boy with a fly.

In a scene late in the novel, when Frances realises that this possibility of love has been ruined for her by Alix’s cruel intervention, she’s torn between despair at the bleak, lonely prospect of her future life, now made worse by the sense of what might have been, and the self-destructive, childish desire to get herself back into Alix’s favour. Her walk home from the climactic disaster across a menacing London at night is described with terrifying force.

It’s the narrative voice that’s the most compelling aspect of this fine novel. Frances is a perceptive, critical observer of other people’s foibles, and gifted in turning them into the kind of witty, diverting fiction that ‘donnish’ types would enjoy. She acknowledges more than once that she has a ‘sharp tongue’ and a ‘moral stuffiness’, and seems proud of being considered ‘famous for my control’ – hinting at passion beneath this prim, austere surface. ‘I am thought to be unfeeling,’ she admits at one point, indicating those depths of feeling she conceals so well. But she’s hopeless at analysing or acknowledging her own feelings, or those of people who have most influence over her.I found this novel disturbing. This is because I think it dramatizes something we’ve surely all experienced: the desire to be liked, to be taken seriously, noticed (that touch of arrogance often found in undemonstrative people), to be looked at. Attention must be paid to your father, says Willy Loman’s wife at the end of Death of a Salesman to his sons, who despise what they see as his futile, thwarted life). Ironically, we all feel we deserve such attention, but are acutely aware of our deficiencies or inadequacies when it comes to inspiring it in other people. Frances doesn’t like being invisible.

Frances is a cleverer, more arrogant version of Prufrock, full of romantic impulses and desires, but lacking the self-confidence and self-esteem to bring them to life – to make friends, find love and hold on to it.

To read her half-aware, half-denying examination of how the events in the novel develop, and of their impact on her, is an emotionally bruising experience. It’s brilliantly done by Anita Brookner.

I’ll finish with a final quotation that reminded me chillingly of Britain’s current PM and his strange influence on the electorate. This is Frances early in the novel on her first impressions of doctor Nick, one of those shallow, shameless, dangerous charmers who attracts self-effacing, observant types like her:

…one’s instinctive reaction is one of admiration, indulgence, and, no doubt, if one is not very careful indeed, of supplication.

Jacquiwine’s post – she’s the one who recommended this for me to buy for Mrs TD – HERE

Backlisted podcast of Sept. 2017 HERE

 

More late spring wanderings

I’ve been thinking about Anita Brookner’s fine but disturbing novel Look At Me, which I finished earlier this week, but need to think about it a little longer before posting on it. I’ve moved on to another novel passed on to me by Mrs TD – post forthcoming on that one, too.

In the meantime, here are some more floral images from some recent walks. Flowers and shrubs are really thriving now, even in this unseasonably chilly, damp and windy May.

PelargoniumThe pelargoniums (or geraniums) in our garden are looking particularly lovely at the moment. This picture was taken just after one of the many showers we’ve had recently.

The etymology of this plant is interesting. ‘Geranium’ derives from the Greek, via Latin, for ‘crane’ (the lanky bird, not the building site machine), while ‘pelargonium’ follows a similar route from the Greek for ‘stork’. This is said, by OED online, to be because the seed pods resemble these birds’ beaks. An early English name for them was ‘cranesbill’. I haven’t checked to see why we use ‘beak’ and ‘bill’ – maybe another time.

Rhododendron My morning walk today took me through the grounds of Epiphany House, which I’ve posted about before HERE. Here the rhododendrons are also looking their finest.

This name is from the Greek for ‘of, relating to, or resembling a rose…rose-coloured, pink, red.’ The second element is from dendro-, Greek for ‘tree’. I recall using the word ‘dendrologist’ in my previous post about Richard Powers’ novel about trees, The Overstory.

The word in English could originally signify ‘oleander’ (from the 16-18C; aka rose bay); the secondary sense we use now dates from 1657. The origin of ‘oleander’ is uncertain; it comes from French via post-classical Latin ‘lorandrum’, an alteration of ‘rhododendron’, possibly by association with ‘olea’ – olive tree, or from ‘lauriendrum’ – possibly from the word for laurel, as the shape of the leaves was similar. OED includes this citation:

1526    Grete Herball cccxxv. sig. Siv/1   Oleandre or olipantrum is an herbe the leues therof is lyke to laurell but they be longer.

Pacific rhododendron I wasn’t sure if this beautiful shrub in the gardens was a rhododendron, so I checked with my plant identifier app: it’s a Pacific rhododendron, aka California rosebay or big leaf rhododendron. The app says it’s a species of azalea (rhododendron), suggesting the two names are commonly interchanged.

I’m not sure if this is right. ‘Azalea’ derives from the Greek ‘azaleos’ – ‘dry’, because of the sandy soil in which it thrives, or else for its dry, brittle wood.

Both shrubs apparently belong to the botanical family Ericaceae.

You’d think the naming of plants would be more straightforward.

I’m just delighted to see them in my neighbourhood while we’re still confined in our movements by pandemic restrictions. They brighten the day, and lift the spirits.

 

Secular hagiography: Richard Powers, The Overstory

Richard Powers, The Overstory. Vintage paperback, 2019 (first published 2018)

Shortlisted for the Man Booker in 2018, awarded the Pulitzer Prize 2019.

I didn’t get on with the fragmented structure and (as Lisa Hill described it in a comment), too ‘clever’ style of the subject of my previous post, Colum McCann’s TransAtlantic. The Overstory, by Richard Powers, makes McCann’s novel look like Hemingway. It’s overwritten and, at over 600 pages, way too long.

Richard Powers, The Overstory front cover The main problem is that it’s relentlessly evangelical about the amazing lives of trees, and the crazy stupidity of human beings in their systematic destruction of them – to make stuff that’s inconsequential compared to the trees’ magnificence. All this is unconvincingly conveyed through the intertwining stories of eight activists who dedicate themselves to campaigning against humankind’s misguided eradication of the dwindling forests of North America.

It’s a worthy cause, and I learnt a lot about trees’ astonishing capacity to communicate with each other, their super-sensitive root systems whereby there’s no such thing as a solitary tree in a forest: it’s one living entity. Dendrology, environmentalism and the evolution of trees and humans is drummed into the reader on almost every page, to the point where the flimsy plot and increasingly flimsy characterisation are lost in the mix of invective and lecturing.

This is a shame, because Powers – like McCann – can write. There are passages of soaring poetic beauty. It’s just that there are too many of them, and they tend to go on, and on. And they’re repeated constantly.

I won’t linger on the plot. The Overstory is a secular hagiography – like those medieval legendaries which contained dozens of edifying stories of saints’ lives. As in The Golden Legend, there are military saints (Doug is a Vietnam vet) and visionary hermit-ascetics. Each main character is damaged or needy, undergoes an arboreal epiphany/conversion to the cause of saving the trees. Some become martyrs (one of them dies in action; another gets two seventy-year prison sentences at the hands of a judicial system that’s portrayed as being as cruel and bigoted as any pagan Roman emperor sending the Christians to the lions). Others are ‘confessors’: secular saints who are punished or suffer terrible ordeals for their cause (or faith). One central group of activists even become stylites for a year – they live at the top of a giant redwood called Mimas (named after the Greek giant, son of Gaia) in an attempt to save it from the chainsaws.

There have been prominent campaigns like this in the UK, most recently the one in which environmentalists have tried to stop the destruction of ancient forests that stand in the way of train or road construction. This isn’t just an American problem.

The main characters are introduced with richly developed back stories in the opening section, Roots, as a disconnected set of short narratives – and these are the best part of the book. Each protagonist of these stories encounters trees as a crucial learning or development point in their vividly described family histories. They all either plant a tree (or one for each child in the family), or have some sort of life-changing encounter with them.

The second section, Trunk, twines these disparate branches of narrative together. Several characters join forces as eco-warrior activists. Another becomes a psychologist, originally joining these tree-huggers (as the dastardly loggers jeeringly call them) in order to research what makes them such dedicated altruists – and possibly suffering from obsessions or delusions that indicate mental health problems – just as some early saints were thought by their persecutors to have been mad. Gradually he realises he’s guilty of bystander syndrome, and gets dramatically involved.

After a section called Canopy, in which each character’s fate is outlined (most end badly), there’s a final part called Seeds. This is where there’s a small green shoot of hope. A pioneering tree scientist begins a collection of seeds of the world’s most endangered varieties and creates a sort of Noah’s ark for trees (she castigates the original Noah for saving only the animals, not the trees – which she considers more important). She’s convinced the forests are doomed, but there may be a chance of planting replacements some time in the future – when perhaps humanity will have learnt to value trees and recognise their essential role in this planet’s precarious ecology.

There are some other characters, too, but I’d started to lose interest by this point. I can see why this novel was rewarded and praised – its author’s passion is unquestionable, and I feel a bit churlish for being so critical. Maybe it’s another Moby-Dick: adored by many, disliked by more. It shares some of the longueurs and over-detailed intrusive research of Melville’s novel, as well as some of its poetic élan.

Apparently The Overstory is being adapted by Netflix. If the scriptwriters can tap in to its often rousing melodrama, flesh out the sometimes flimsy or stereotyped characterisation and prune most of the unsubtle preaching and relentless earnestness, I can see it making a pretty good film or series.

 

Colum McCann, TransAtlantic

Colum McCann, TransAtlantic. Bloomsbury (2013). 295 pp.

Fragments of narrative from different periods of history with different characters gradually coalesce and cohere into a story about endurance, conflict, love and loss – and lots more in between.

Colum McCann TransAtlantic coverTransAtlantic opens in Newfoundland in 1919. Alcock and Brown make the first non-stop flight across the Atlantic to Ireland. That Canadian-Irish connection is one of the elements that binds the fragments together. A local reporter of Irish descent, Emily Ehrlich, and her photographer daughter Lottie, cover the story. Lottie gives a letter to Brown and asks him to deliver it to the recipient in Ireland. The fate of that letter, what happens to Lottie and others around her, form the basis of the novel.

One of the other elements is the slightly incongruous story of a fund-raising/lecture tour of Ireland made by the former slave Frederick Douglass, who was campaigning to raise support for the abolitionist cause. The people he meets are part of the mosaic of narrative fragments that form the final finished picture of the novel.

We also see Senator George Mitchell as he commutes between his American home and family and the peace negotiations he chairs in Northern Ireland.

These various narratives are told with verve and plenty of local colour. There are weak characters and strong, sad and happy. Just as in real life. Many of them have their lives destroyed by war, terrorist acts and humankind’s general capacity for cruelty.

Somehow for me it didn’t entirely work: the parts are better than the whole. Partly I think the complex structure is over-contrived. Also the prose style has some irritating features. I’ve complained about this kind of thing before, I know, and I should maybe be less picky. But McCann loves making paragraphs and sentences out of tiny fragments, perhaps because he thinks this reflects the novel’s larger structure. Here’s a random example; a middle-aged woman stands and watches Douglass across a crowded room – she hasn’t seen him for years, and recalls the last time, when she was just seventeen and a housemaid:

Standing outside Webb’s house. Bidding him goodbye. The early Dublin light. The shaking of hands. So unusual. The creak of the carriage. Later the butler, Charles, rebuked the staff. How dare you. The smallest moments: they return, dwell, endure.

The prose here is perhaps a reflection of the fragmentary nature of the woman’s fleeting thoughts and memories, those ‘smallest moments’. But almost every page has at least one paragraph in that similar staccato style. Where we’re not privy to a person’s stream of consciousness/thoughts. It’s just the narrative style. Too many minor sentences. Like these.

McCann is also capable of some beautifully lyrical descriptive passages. I’ll end with a couple of examples, to redress the balance of this post. Here a group of people is driving in a car towards Wales:

They pulled up to the edge of a field and watched a falconer ply his art: the bird being trained on the end of a string, the long curl of his flight slowly learning its limits. It hovered a moment, then landed superbly on the falconer’s glove.

I’m not sure I fully grasp the significance of how ‘his’ and ‘its’ combine in that sentence, but that adds somehow to the almost mystical nature of this apparently inconsequential scene. Except the novel started with two aviators’ long ‘curl of flight’ across the ocean, learning their limits and those of their warplane converted into a transatlantic migrant – a raptor trained to land peaceably, superbly, in an Irish bog.

And again, a scene that becomes of central significance – an Irish lough:

The lake was tidal. It seemed to stretch for ever to the east, rising and falling like a breathing thing. A pair of geese went across the sky, their long necks craned. They soared in over the cottage and away.  They looked as if they were pulling the colour out of the sky. The movement of clouds shaped out the wind. The waves came in and applauded against the shore. The languid kelp rose and fell with the swells.

There are some lovely images, rhythms and sounds there – it’s prose poetry. Once more it’s more than just decorative scene-setting. Birds in flight remind us of that transatlantic flight. The image of the waves ‘applauding’ shouldn’t work, but does. Same with the awkward aptness of the clouds’ movement that ‘shaped out the wind’. Why ‘out’? It’s the wrongness of the word that’s right for this aerial event.

Not an entirely successful novel, then, but it has some fine moments and stirring scenes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Orchids and bluebells

I’m making slow progress through a long novel: Richard Powers, Overstory. It’s not one to rush. It’s about trees.

Here then are some pictures of yesterday’s walk on the coast of the Roseland peninsula. I’ve posted about this beautiful stretch of the Cornish coast several times before, usually with pictures of blue sky and cobalt sea. Not so yesterday: it was a blustery, grey day. House martins were swooping over the shoreline rocks, like tiny black-and-white terns.

The blossom I posted about last time had finished, and the blackthorn and hawthorn was turning pale green with new young leaves bursting out.

Bluebells view west

The view west towards Portscatho

Halfway through our walk we came upon a series of hillside fields overlooking the sea that were carpeted in bluebells – a lovely sight. My phone camera’s pictures can’t really do justice to the smoky violet-blue haze these flowers create.

Among the flowers and grass were also dozens of tiny purple orchids.

The name comes from the Greek orkhis – ‘testicle’ – because of the shape of the twin tubers in some   Orchidsvarieties. Not a very glamorous etymology for such a handsome plant.

According to my walks app, this particular type of wild orchid is the con artist of the plant world. Its brilliant purple flowers resemble those of other nectar-rich orchids. When insects arrive and push through the pollen to seek out the nectar, they find that there is none.

I’ll end this short post with an exchange I recorded in a notebook a few years ago. I’d been to St Michael’s Mount with Mrs TD and two grandchildren. We’d been looking round the museum exhibits inside the building that tops the island rock. One was a mummified Egyptian cat. I said that it was surprisingly long and thin. ‘That’s because,’ said Mrs TD, ‘cats are all fluff and nonsense.’

View east towards Pendower beach

View east towards Pendower beach

 

Annie Perreault, The Woman in Valencia

Annie Perreault,The Woman in Valencia. QC Fiction, Québec, 2021. 212 pp. Translated from the French by Ann Marie Boulanger.

QC Fiction, the Canadian imprint that specialises in translating French fiction into English, continues to be innovative: every title in their catalogue is stimulating to read.

Annie Perreault Woman in Valencia cover The plot is uncomplicated: Claire Halde is on holiday in Valencia with her husband and two small girls. She’s basking in the summer sun on a hotel fourth-floor pool terrace, watching her family play in the water. A strange woman approaches her, fully dressed, and asks Claire to take her tote bag. There’s a bloodstained recent dressing on her wrist, which is bleeding copiously. Claire is alarmed by the woman’s agitated state, and tries to calm her down. Her offers to call for medical help are dismissed.

Then the woman climbs over the terrace rail and jumps.

For the rest of this taut narrative Claire is haunted by this event. Her life starts to fall apart as her emotional state fragments.

Time passes, and she visits Valencia again. Has a passionate affair. This seems to exorcise her demons.

Intercut with these developments we learn about her daughter, Laure, now an adult, who runs a marathon in Valencia in an attempt to honour her mother and emulate her running feats. We’re given insights to Laure’s thoughts as the kilometres pass. There are also flashbacks to Claire’s youthful backpacking adventures.

For a while I thought this would have been better as a long short story, but as the various strands of narrative assembled themselves I began to appreciate the author’s artistry. Her focus is on the feelings and impulses of her main characters: we get right inside their heads, and the intensity of their emotions is palpable. The central metaphor of the marathon is an apt vehicle for the ordeals of endurance these women undergo.

The translation, as always with QC titles, is excellent: idiomatic and smooth.

My thanks to the publishers for this ARC.