About Simon Lavery

Author, blogger.

Words and #BlossomWatch

I posted last time on some words that were new to me – I liked their sound as well as their meanings. Here are some more that I came across recently.

Mrs TD drew my attention to this one: bloviate. It was used in a column by Raphael Behr on the Guardian newspaper website, in a piece about his heart attack and subsequent recovery. He referred to Boris Johnson’s first performance (he does like to play to the gallery) in prime minister’s question time after his election win in late 2019: Johnson was ‘basking in his majority, and was relieved to discover that his bloviation didn’t interfere with my breathing’.

To bloviate is to talk at length, especially in an inflated or empty way. Perfect for characterising our illustrious leader’s rhetorical style.

Last year I was working on a project for a health service institution. Part of my background reading turned up the expression nosocomial infectionsIt means those acquired while a patient is in hospital (or other place of treatment). Derived from the Greek nosos – disease, sickness, and komein – to take care of, attend to, it seems first to have been used in English in the mid-19C. Apparently ‘nosocome’ was a 17C word for ‘hospital’.

Not surprising that the word is starting to appear more frequently in the media in these days of Covid infection and transmission.

Some dictionaries give a related, equally prickly and polysyllabic term: iatrogenic infections. These are acquired after medical or surgical management, whether or not the patient was hospitalised. Not a semantic distinction most of us are called upon to make, fortunately. It’s from the Greek iatros – physician, and the element gen – producing, creating. It’s where the word ‘geriatric’ also comes from.

Blossom treeAnother lovely sunny day today. I walked to a local park to find the blossom tree Mrs TD discovered earlier this week. She took this picture. The Japanese have the lovely word hanami for the practice of enjoying the transient beauty of flowers, especially the gorgeous spring displays of cherry and plum blossom.

Magnolias are just beginning to flower, too.

The insolent squirrels have been searching our flower beds for crocuses, but have been less successful this year.

Some words and creeks

I’ve just finished a book of short stories by Elizabeth Jane Howard; some of them were quite nasty. I need to think about them some more before posting on them.

So another of my occasional asides into language today. I’ve been collecting words for as long as I can remember; I like to note down new ones (to me), or others that I just like. Here’s one I came across in a nature column in The Times recently: petrichor. It’s funny isn’t it how a word you were unfamiliar with seems to keep popping up once you’ve clocked it. It was used soon afterwards on a not particularly memorable Netflix programme, ‘The Wilds’. It was a sort of Lord of the Flies/’Lost’ mashup with teenage girls on an island. One, a studious type, used petrichor in a flashback scene of a family game of Scrabble.

It means the pungent smell of earth after it’s made damp by rain. From Greek petros, rock, and ichor, the fluid that flows in the veins of the gods in mythology.

One word leads to another. My online dictionary pointed me to related words: argillaceous: of, or containing, clay (Latin argilla; Greek argos, white).

The word minaudière appeared in an auctioneer’s ad in our local paper last month. It was an item that featured in a recent sale. According to Wikipedia the word was a French term for a coquettish woman or flirt, from the verb “minauder” (to flirt or simper – so not very politically correct. I rather like that word “simper” btw).  It’s a (luxury) women’s fashion accessory, a kind of decorative or jewelled evening bag with cases or compartments for cosmetics or other small items. It was first used in the 1930s and attributed to Charles Arpels of Van Cleef & Arpels. Minaudières were usually metal plated, oblong, sometimes made of gold or silver, lacquered or covered in stones or mother-of-pearl. Some were fabric – brocade, silk. Some had a lanyard or chain to place over the wrist.

A linked article describes an étui: a woman’s ornamental case, usually carried in the pocket or purse, for holding small items like folding scissors, hairpins, bodkins (another fine word), etc. The word derives from the French for prison – a place for being shut up or confined. They were usually another expensive accessory and made of ivory, precious metal, tortoiseshell, or…shagreen. But I’ll not go down that linguistic rabbit-hole.

I went for my first bike ride in months today. It was a beautiful day: crisp but clear, with mostly blue skies and plenty of sunshine. I’ll end with some pictures of another tidal creek, not far from the ones I posted last time. Even when the tide is low and there’s lots of mud on show, it’s still a lovely sight. Curlews call and add to the sense of tranquillity.

Malpas creek confluence

The same creek at its confluence with another river. Didn’t have my glasses on, so these are a bit blurred, I’m afraid

Anemones

Here’s a gratuitous picture of some anemones that have just flowered in a pot by my front door

Kathleen Jamie, Sightlines – and a kestrel

Kathleen Jamie, Sightlines. Sort Of Books, 2012

This was lent to me along with Findings – an earlier (2003) Kathleen Jamie book of essays mostly about the natural world. My post on that one is HERE.

Kathleen Jamie Sightlines coverThis is another highly entertaining collection of meditations and observations on topics ranging from wildlife to Neolithic caves and burial sites, to the whale museum in Bergen and what diseased cells look like under a microscope – nature isn’t just ‘out there’.

Jamie doesn’t only describe things and places: she uses them as the starting point for philosophical, even spiritual musings on their significance – as moments in the historical process that she inhabits at the time of witnessing them.

She loves to project herself back to the times when these marks on the landscape (and human consciousness) were made – as in the essay on her participation at the age of 17 in an archaeological dig of a Neolithic/Bronze Age ‘henge’ site in southern Scotland. We learn as much about what Kathleen Jamie (and the other drifting youngsters helping with the dig) was like at that time as we do about ‘The Woman in the Field’ whose skeleton is discovered.

The lucid, rhythmic language, as in Findings, is evocative – these are a poet’s prose sketches. It’s also idiosyncratic. As early as page 3, in the opening essay on her cruise to the Arctic to see the Aurora Borealis, there’s this, as the visitors land on a windswept ‘goose-plain’:

It’s a stern breeze, blowing from the land, inscousant now, but…it carries a sense of enormous strength withheld.

‘Inscousant’. I looked it up: neither the OED or various Scots dictionaries online recorded it. Google turned up a reference which turned out to be a post by another blogger, writing about this very passage! From the context it seems to mean the opposite of ‘strong’ – is it a typo for ‘insouciant’ (there are a few minor typos in other essays), a dialect word no dictionary recognises, or something Jamie made up?

Jamie is rather fond of other Scots expressions, like this, in a short impressionistic essay on the moon and its cycles:

Of course time passed. As the shadow crept onward, upward, smooring the moon’s light as it went, I half understood that what I was watching was time…

The Scottish National Dictionaries online has an entry on this (I include the first couple of literary citations; I’ve omitted some of the technical stuff):

v1intr. (1) To be choked, stifled, suffocated, to suffer or die from want of air…esp. to perish by being buried in a snowdrift. Vbl.n. smooring, death by suffocation.

Ayr. 1790 Burns Tam o’ Shanter 90:
Where in the snaw the chapman smoor’d.

Slk. 1807 Hogg Shepherd’s Guide 121:
Smooring. This is occasioned solely by the shepherd’s not having his flocks gathered to proper shelter.

 

The unusual vocabulary adds pungency to the otherwise plain, clear style, in keeping with the reflective tone.

Jamie digs deep into her own psyche or soul to discover how the outer world she explores resonates within her. So in that Arctic breeze, exhorted by her guide to listen to the silence, she hears it: ‘radiant’ and ‘mineral’, ‘deep, and quite frightening, and makes my mind seem clamorous as a goose.’

In my post on Findings I singled out Jamie’s gift for imagery; her simile here draws upon the earlier part of the essay where she’d been given a goose feather, causing her to reflect on how these birds had recently flown away from where she was standing: ‘To my mind, geese only travel north, to some place beyond the horizon. But this is that place. From here, they go south.’

What a wonderful way to show how she’d reached the earth’s roof. And it’s a notion delicately and even slightly humorously evoked in that simile, where she subverts the cliché about geese being clamorously silly.

Elsewhere in these essays Jamie brilliantly describes the dynamics and drama of a gannetry (a rocky island on which huge groups of gannets nest), and remote islands where a female killer whale teaches her young how to hunt seals.

Tidal creek in February sunFinally, as has become my custom since the pandemic changed how we live, a few images from recent walks.

We’re lucky to live very near to some beautiful tidal creeks. I’ve posted on this one before – it’s one of our favourite local spots. On the day I took these pictures the weeks of cloud and rain briefly ended and a spring-like sun shone.

Hovering kestrel A kestrel hovered just a few yards away from us, its raptor gaze fixed on the land way below.

On another walk in a local park I saw a cluster of these lovely violet-purple flowers in a cultivated bed. The shape of the bells resembles bluebells’, but the rest is more hyacinth-like. According to my flower identification app, they are hyacinths. I’ve never seen them this colour before – then we saw some more on another walk on a local country lane. Strange, isn’t it, how something previously unknown suddenly starts appearing often.

Tidal creekTidal creek

Dodie Smith, I Capture the Castle – and recent walks

Dodie Smith, I Capture the Castle. Vintage Books, 2004. First published in the USA, 1948

Not many novels make me laugh, but this one did, many times. Its narrative form is a sequence of entries in increasingly expensive notebook diaries written by its precocious 17-year-old protagonist, Cassandra Mortmain. They are quirky, intimate and ‘consciously naïve’ (as she’s piqued to overhear herself described as by one of the potential suitors who come on the scene).

Dodie Smith I Capture the Castle coverThe plot is a sort of mash-up of romantic-Gothic-silly aspects of Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre and Vanity Fair’s Becky Sharp – all of which are name-checked. The Mortmains are penniless, barely subsisting in their crumbling castle. The sisters’ negligent blocked novelist father spends his time shut in his room reading trashy detective stories; their stepmother is a flaky, impractical bohemian/It Girl (the novel seems to be set in the thirties).

Cassandra is shrewd and decent enough to despair of her pretty older sister Rose’s over-obvious flirting with the eligible rich American boys who take over the big house (and also become her family’s landlords – though they never pay rent). As gold-digging Rose admits early on, she’d ‘marry the Devil himself if he had some money’. But Cassandra is young, romantic and coquettish enough to fall for one of the young men herself.

These contrived entanglements are perhaps strung out too long, but it’s worth sticking with the novel for its constant stream of the ingenuous Cassandra’s humorous observations arising from bizarre situations in and around their crumbling castle. Some of these scenes try too hard (as when Rose is mistaken for a bear), but usually they work. Here are some tasters:

[Cassandra at the start of the novel is pondering what she and sister Rose are to do for money] Surely there is enough intelligence among us to earn some, or marry some – Rose, that is; for I would approach matrimony as cheerfully as I would the tomb and I cannot feel that I should give satisfaction.  

[The sisters have met the wealthy young Americans, and Rose has caught the eye of one them; her mercenary hopes are raised, and they decide to pray in earnest, as they go to bed one night, that Rose will genuinely fall in love with him so that she won’t be a miserable rich wife. Cassandra finishes her prayers, but Rose carries on longer] ‘That’ll do, Rose,’ I told her at last. ‘It’s enough just to mention things, you know. Long prayers are like nagging.’


Some good news for once: Mrs TD and I had our Pfizer vaccinations yesterday – no ill effects or discomfort so far, and all was well organised at our local doctors’ surgery. It’s the first thing the British government has managed well since the pandemic started – though the success of the rollout of vaccines is largely down to the energy and dedication and professionalism of the NHS staff and the volunteers who’ve assisted with the practicalities.

Mrs TD has applied to be one of those volunteers. She was very excited this morning when her high-viz tabard arrived in the mail. She intends to wear it everywhere, even though she hasn’t yet been called to help with the vaccination programme.

I’ll close with some remarks about recent walks. One cold day last week, while Mrs TD had her Zoom yoga class, I went out alone. On a remote lane, high on a hill where the wind was bitter, a well-wrapped-up man passed me: ‘Fresh this morning,’ he said.

This lingered with me for some time. One of those expressions that’s so context-bound. It could have been said by a fishmonger or greengrocer, extolling the qualities of their wares to a potential customer.

Indignant peacockAnother day, another walk, the two of us this time. We passed the smallholding where the group (flock?) of peacocks live; I’ve posted about them several times since our lockdown exercise walks became routine. Mrs TD took this picture of one of the birds perched on the sill of one of the house’s upstairs windows. It was peering in, indignant but also a bit desperate.

I often pass these stones. They lie in a field by the footpath – sheep are grazing there at the moment. They look a little forlorn, like a small, derelict Stonehenge. The sun that day cast shadows that made the scene even more desolate than usual.

Stones

Highsmith and lambs

Patricia Highsmith, The Glass Cell. Virago Modern Classics, 2014. First published in the USA, 1963

Patricia Highsmith Glass Cell coverThis wasn’t the most soothing choice of reading during Britain’s third lockdown, when Covid cases are soaring, hospitals are full and their staff almost overwhelmed, and the days are short and mostly wet and grey. So I shall give just a few thoughts about this typically disturbing novel by Patricia Highsmith, and append some more uplifting stuff from recent walks.

The first third of the novel tells of the brutal treatment in a grim prison in the south of the USA of a man singularly ill-equipped to deal with its regime. Phil Carter is an educated, affluent engineer/designer who’s been convicted of commercial fraud. He failed to read certain documents his crooked bosses gave him to sign, and these provided incriminating evidence at his trial.

As usual with Highsmith, the reader is never on firm ground. The story is told largely from Carter’s point of view. Was he really so carefree in business matters, naïve or gullible, too trusting? Were these bosses, who continue to converge on his life after his six-year sentence has been completed, as dodgy as we’re led to believe? Given how Carter develops (or unravels) in the second part of the novel, it’s difficult to believe he’s entirely innocent – about anything.

It’s a novel about the toxic nature of jealousy. Like Othello, Carter is worked on by one of these ex-bosses, keen to give him the ‘ocular proof’ that his beautiful wife Hazel, who has visited him regularly in jail, has been having an affair the whole time – and that it’s still going on when he’s released and they start a new life in New York. The consequences are explosive, and left me when I’d finished the novel with something resembling an acrid taste.

The world that Highsmith conjures up in those novels of hers that I’ve read (link HERE to previous posts about them) is twisted, and the characters who inhabit it are damaged by its tortuousness. Often they inflict some more on others. I find this is not the best of times to be reading her.

Hibernating snailsHere then are some reflections and images from recent rural walks.

First, a cluster of what I presume are hibernating snails. They were tightly packed inside a drainpipe embedded in a garden wall – it must have been blocked, otherwise they’d surely have been washed away after all the rain we’ve had here in Cornwall in recent weeks. (None of the snow, so far, that’s swept across the north and south-east of Britain over the weekend.)

The steps are outside a house near Kenwyn Church. As they don’t lead anywhere, I assume Stone stepsthey once functioned as a means of stowing things more easily into a cart or truck, or to make mounting a horse less arduous. I like the patterns made by lichens and mosses (not sure what the difference is).

 

 

We have had a few rare days of sunshine. At this time of year, clear skies mean very cold air. This fine butterfly –  a red admiral, I think – took advantage of the warming rays on an olive tree that sits in a pot in the sheltered south-facing front of our house.

Butterfly

Most days have been grey and damp. Mrs TD and I had our spirits lifted on a walk last week at the sight of a field of ewes with their skipping, frisking lambs . The farmer was just leaving through the gate, so we were able to ask her about them. She said the lambs were just three days old. When we passed that way again a few days later I was able to snap this delightful scene: the lamb enthusiastically feeding from its placid mother, its tail wagging like a spaniel’s.

 

Ewe and lambThe sky was grey, but this sight brightened our day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The destruction of the human soul: Julian Barnes, The Noise of Time

Julian Barnes, The Noise of Time. Vintage Books, 2017. First published 2016

Julian Barnes Noise of Time cover Can artists work without compromising themselves when living under a brutal dictator with a highly prescriptive set of strictures about what constitutes “acceptable” or proletarian art? That’s the dilemma faced by the protagonist of Julian Barnes’ fictional account of Dmitri Shostakovich under Stalin-era Soviet rule.

Barnes conveys particularly well the absurdity behind this autocratic ‘Power’: Stalin and his successors employ fanatical apparatchiks to enforce their doctrine, and any perceived deviation from it is dealt with savagely. During the opening section of the novel, Shostakovich stands outside his Leningrad apartment by the lift, waiting for its doors to open and emit the men from the ‘Big House’ who will take him away to the fate he knows has befallen so many of his friends (and countless strangers) – interrogation, the camps, or more likely a bullet to the back of the head.

His crime: to write an opera that Stalin considered bourgeois, cacophonous, and suspiciously like the odious capitalist western jazz.

He stands there night after night, hour after hour, to spare his wife the sight of his being hauled from his bed by these agents of terror.

Most of the novel consists of a highly plausible account of his inner conflict during his decades of fluctuating favour with Power. He sees himself as a coward when he kowtows to it. He signs his name to articles he hasn’t written, admissions of ‘crimes’ he knows he’s innocent of.

Even worse is the apparently softer regime under Stalin’s successors, when he finds himself having to make even more humiliating concessions and public shows of feigned allegiance to a system that’s still repressive and narrow-minded:

And when faced with criticism of his own work, his response was: look, I have a multiplicity of styles, just tell me which you would prefer me to use. He was proud of his facility – but that was not what was being asked of him. They didn’t want you to fake adherence to their banal taste and meaningless critical slogans – they wanted you to actually believe in them. They wanted your complicity, your compliance, your corruption.

The novel is well written, full of intriguing insights into this conflicted man’s anguish and dilemma. His genius is marred by certain human frailties and flaws – this is no hagiography.

I just didn’t find it as compelling as I thought I would. Maybe it’s just the lacklustre mood of these constrained times – it hinders my capacity to enter into these fictional worlds. Another time I’d have probably enjoyed this novel much more – but this exploration of ‘the destruction of the human soul’ is not what I need at present. And as another autocratic, narcissistic leader heads for the Florida golf courses, maybe life will take a turn for the better in this turbulent world.

Snowdrop

The first snowdrop of the year appeared in our garden last week

Meanwhile Mrs TD and I continue our daily walks. The other day as we turned from our street into the main road we were confronted by two power company vans and a group of workmen in high vis vests, standing around a large hole they’d just dug in the road, peering into its depths. Is there a problem? Mrs TD asked. “No, just a gas leak,” one of the workmen cheerily replied…

 

Elizabeth Taylor, A View of the Harbour – and some recent walks

Elizabeth Taylor, A View of the Harbour. Virago Modern Classic, 2018. First published 1947

As its title suggests, this is a painterly novel. There’s an ensemble of characters who live in the picturesque houses, shops, pub and cottages clustered around a fading harbour in the south of England just after the war. Among them is the visitor Bertram Hemingway, a retired naval officer, who likes the idea of painting seascapes and a view of this harbour, but he lacks the talent or application to produce anything of note. He’s a sort of catalyst: his arrival sets off a chain of reactions in the other characters in this enclosed community that will change some of their lives.

Elizabeth Taylor A View of the Harbour coverHe’s curious about other people; some would say he’s nosy. He has ‘a passion for turning stones’ to see what lives underneath. He’s less keen on taking responsibility for the disruption this curiosity causes.

The novel reveals the frictions, frustrations, infidelities, betrayals and imperilled friendships that go on in the harbourside’s fractious families and isolated individuals. Everyone watches everyone else: there’s a good deal of curtain-twitching as lonely individuals keep an eye on the comings and goings around the once-busy, now dying harbour.

Taylor’s usual sharp eye for telling detail is apparent. She describes the world of nature as if it were a living chorus, or reflection of the human drama onshore: the sea is sometimes ‘queasy’; ‘waves exploded and crashed’ as a young couple walk the coastal path, anticipating love; the fish being caught far out at sea ‘fought and slithered in the nets, floundering and entangled.’

She seems most at home with the middle-class characters, but she writes with acuity about the working classes, too – without romanticising or evading harsh realities.

If you haven’t yet tried Elizabeth Taylor’s fiction, this would be a good place to start: not her most subtle work, but I’m sure you’ll not regret exploring her fiction (the short stories are excellent, too – list of links to my posts at the end).

HeronRecent walks: a few days ago with Mrs TD I crossed town and did the circuit of a park beside which runs a tidal river. There we saw this elegant grey heron, poised like a dancer as it fished in the muddy shallows – the tide was low.

Another day I had to step into the shelter of a rural gateway to let a car pass in the narrow lane. As I looked across the huge garden of this country house I saw a large grey and white goat standing on the roof of a shed. His back was towards me, but he must have sensed my presence, because he obligingly turned to face me as I zoomed in with my phone camera to take his picture. He was too far away to include the photo here – he’s just a blur.

I looked online but couldn’t figure what breed he was. The nearest I could get was an Icelandic goat. What’s he doing in Cornwall?

Mossy wall

Yesterday I took one of our favourite local routes, and I had to take this picture of a lovely old Cornish hedge. Maybe not as authentic as those in the open country; this one is the outer wall of a house on the edge of town in a small development of fairly modern properties. Even so, it’s got a lovely downy coat of moss.

 

The River Kenwyn flows in the valley     River Kenwynjust below our house. This view is from the road bridge just as the river enters the outskirts of the city. All looks very monochrome and bare in December, but buds are bursting on the tree branches. Do the fish have trouble swimming against the strong currents in the swollen waters after recent heavy rain? How do they see where they’re going when it’s so muddied by the run-off from the steeply sloping fields upstream?

Saw two dippers splashing around in one of the other rivers that enters the built-up area across town the other day. I think they’re the only British birds that can swim underwater.

Also finally caught a good view of one of the tawny owls that haunt our valley: we hear their screeches, hoots and whistle most nights, but so far I’ve never managed to see one. This one was only about thirty feet away, perched on a branch just beyond our garden fence. He blinked at me nonchalantly in the beam of my torch, swivelled his head in that owly way they have, then took off.

CrocusFinally, the first winter flowers appeared in our garden yesterday: a crocus in a pot and a snowdrop by the bird feeder. The delinquent squirrel, who ate all the crocus bulbs last year, has spared most of them this winter, but I did see this morning the shredded remains of a crocus flower – as if he’d left a sinister message for me. You thought I’d given up, didn’t you?

That’s why, as I watched him in the owl’s tree this morning, he arrogantly turned his back and flounced his tail at me. Like a French archer at Agincourt. Pesky little rodent.

Links to all my Elizabeth Taylor posts (five novels and the complete short stories) HERE.

 

More lockdown rambles

I won’t comment on last week’s events in Washington DC, or the subsequent craven behaviour by those who supported them. Neither shall I mention the worsening Covid crisis here in the UK. We’re now in our third lockdown as cases surge alarmingly.

All we can do, me and Mrs TD, is to go for our daily country walks, tune in to nature, and get through each day. I have managed to read most of Elizabeth Taylor’s early novel A View from the Harbour, so should be posting on that soon.

Meadows in shadow at noon

Meadows in shadow at noon

The weather finally brightened last week: cold and frosty, but this was because of the clear sky overnight. Daytime was therefore crisp, sunny and beautiful. Even though the sun barely struggled above the horizon at noon. Long shadows were cast by the trees at the edge of this local meadow.

That was at the end of the walk that day. Earlier I looked over the hedge beside the lane I walked along, Sunny scene with birdtowards the north and the wind turbines by the A30 – the main road linking Cornwall with the rest of the country, just beyond the horizon in this shot.

The turbines are barely visible in my picture – but a passing crow managed to photo-bomb it.

A little further along from this scene the lane turns sharply left and drops down into the deep Kenwyn river valley. Here are a couple of pictures of this downward-sloping lane, the first taken (and posted here) last May, the second from my walk last week:

Lane with cowparsleyCountry lane, winter

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Earlier this week, as we walked down another local lane, we spotted our first wild daffodils (I included a picture of some cultivated ones at Epiphany House in my post a week or so back) atop a hedgerow.  Early daffodils

 

This week has been warmer – no frost – but very murky, with a misty rain rippling across the countryside.

Here’s a glimpse of the contrast with last week’s conditions: Misty rain

 

 

 

Mrs TD went for her walk today alone as I wanted to write this post. As I was drafting it, she texted me this picture below. I’ve featured these local peacocks several times since the rural rambles became so regular during the Covid restrictions.

This is the first time they’ve been seen together as a group of three. She said there was a fourth one standing ostentatiously on top of his favourite shed roof.

We haven’t heard them screeching, though, since the summer. We’ve spotted the occasional one in recent weeks, moping about this area, all alone, but resolutely silent. Why don’t they screech in winter? Are they sulking?

 

Austin Wright, Tony & Susan

Austin Wright, Tony & Susan. Atlantic Books, 2011. First published in USA 1993.

Austin Wright, who died in 2003, was for many years an English professor at the University of Cincinnatti. There he had the reputation for minute critical analysis of literary texts. I’m afraid this shows in his first novel, Tony & Susan, not entirely in a good way.

It’s technically superb: a taut thriller is embedded in another novel that struggles to emerge from its shadow.

 Austin Wright, Tony & Susan coverSusan is sent the MS of his first novel by her ex-husband, Edward with a request that she provide a critique: something is lacking in it, he says in his letter. They’d divorced after the wreck of their marriage, precipitated by his abandoning a budding law career to indulge his desire to become a writer. Susan wasn’t pleased: she thought he took for granted her complicity in this (to her mind) deluded dream, supporting his fantasy with her salary as a college English teacher.

You see what’s coming: Susan, a self-confessed severe literary critic, especially of Edward’s apprentice work when they were married, reads the novel that forms the basis of this novel. It’s a metafictional, self-reflexive premise that I never fully bought.

The novel-within-a-novel is called Nocturnal Animals – which is the title of Tom Ford’s 2016 film version (I haven’t seen it: I’d be interested to hear from anyone who has). Mild-mannered maths professor Tony, his wife Laura and teenage daughter Helen are driving to Maine. They get involved in a dangerous game of chicken on the highway that culminates in a minor accident. The occupants of both vehicles get out, and it all goes horribly wrong from that point.

The three men from the other vehicle turn out to be nasty individuals, and they force Tony and family into a terrifying ordeal. Tony is forced to question his adequacy and agency. The plot manipulates him into increasingly destabilising positions.

All of this is narrated with alternating sections in which we get Susan’s back story and her reactions to Edward’s novel as it develops. Here’s where I started to lose engagement: as a teacher of literature she evaluates Edward’s narrative that I’d just read, and her analysis occluded my own. I felt placed in a position of uncertainty in my own judgement. This is probably what the author intended, but if that’s the case, I didn’t care for it.

Susan also inevitably looks for a personal message in this rather gruesome story. Is her ex suggesting that she is represented by one of the characters in his novel? If so, which one: the academic, unheroic Tony, who feels guilty and ashamed that he can’t act more decisively to protect himself and his family? Or, even worse, the leader of the men who threaten them? Or the detective who tries to help Tony find the thugs, eventually by resorting to dangerously unorthodox methods that expose Tony to even more menacing dilemmas and confrontations?

Similar questions arise about Edward: is he represented in some way by one of the characters? If so, what might be his cryptic message to Susan?

Wright manipulates Susan’s response, and my own. I was assessing her assessment of Nocturnal Animals and attempts to interpret it in terms of her two experiences of married life – after divorcing Tony, she’d married Arnold, a philandering doctor and had three children – and Edward’s: he’d remarried too. Is his novel really an allegory of their two lives: is he suggesting that they made a mistake by divorcing, or is he just taunting her for leaving him?

As a postmodern puzzle dressed up in a noirish tale of violence and menace it’s entertaining in patches, but ultimately rather cold and…I don’t know, kind of pointless.

Nunez, daffodils, holy wells again

Sigrid Nunez, Salvation City. Virago paperback, 2020. First published 2010

I thought Sigrid Nunez’ 2018 novel The Friend (link to my post HERE) was an intelligent, well-written and highly engaging read. I was disappointed by Salvation City.

Nunez, Salvation City coverMaybe it’s because it’s set in an imagined near-future flu pandemic in which many die – including some of the central characters in the narrative. Given our current dire situation here in the UK, where we’ve just entered our third lockdown in response to a scary surge in Covid cases, it wasn’t perhaps the best choice to cheer me up.

I don’t think that fully accounts for my dissatisfaction with the novel. The long central section has the 13-year-old protagonist, a sensitive lad named Cole, being more or less indoctrinated by a group of well-meaning religious zealots who live in the city of the novel’s title. They are convinced that the pandemic is God’s way of initiating the rapture, and only the chosen (ie those same fundamentalists) will achieve ‘salvation’.

I very nearly gave up on the novel after too many pages of their fanatical self-righteousness. Towards the end Cole shows signs of asserting himself and going his own way, but by then I’d almost ceased caring.

I’m afraid I can’t recommend this one – but do try The Friend. Don’t worry about the dog in it.

DaffodilsInstead here’s an image from yesterday’s local walk. In the grounds of Epiphany House (I recently wrote during first lockdown in April about this former convent and school, now a retreat and conference centre – though not much retreating or conferring is happening there at the moment – HERE). These are the first daffodils I’ve seen this winter. They lifted our spirits. Spring is on the way

It’s weird to be walking our local lanes and paths in a January lockdown, almost a year since we started doing this pretty much every day as our only permitted exercise during the first pandemic restrictions. We’ve seen spring flowers come and go, summer hedgerows burst into life, autumn and now midwinter. Soon the cycle will be back where we started. I guess the message is that life goes on (despite the efforts of our hapless leaders, who seem always to be tardily reactive, rather than proactive and firmly decisive).

Holywell Finally a picture taken the previous day at a north Cornwall beach we haven’t been to in ages: Holywell Bay. There are two holy wells in the area: one, a sea cave in the cliffs over the beach (the tide was too high for us to enter it), the other in what’s now a holiday park in the nearby village of Cubert. Their holy, healing qualities are said to derive from association with the northern English St Cuthbert, or a Welsh St Cubert.

The figure just visible in my picture top left is my brother-in-law, peering into the abyss. No, he was investigating a curious concrete structure in the clifftop – possibly some sort of bunker: this area adjoins Penhale, a stretch of sand dunes on which there’s a military establishment which the public can’t access. This is where Cornwall’s patron saint, Piran, is said to have landed on his miraculous stone from Ireland. I wrote about him and his oratory in the dunes HERE back in 2016.

You can read more about the wells and this area HERE. Link to my two posts on Bede’s Life of Cuthbert HERE.

 

Happy New Year to you all. As we’re all saying at the moment, surely this will be an improvement on last year.