Kamila Shamsie, A God in Every Stone

Kamila Shamsie, A God in Every Stone. Bloomsbury, 2015. First published 2014

This is the third novel by Pakistani-British author Kamila Shamsie that I’ve read (links to posts on the other two at the end): as always she tells a powerful story, creating complex, conflicted characters faced with terrible dilemmas.

Shamsie is interested in the tensions and connections between British colonisers in the Indian subcontinent and those they lorded it over. In this case there’s Viv, an English archaeologist, who travels from Turkey back to England. When WWI breaks out she works as a VAD nurse, then, emotionally shattered, she sails for Peshawar (modern-day Pakistan) to take part in a dig that her Turkish mentor had told her might be the site of a lost ancient treasure.

Quayyum’s family come from that city, but he’d served the British in a Pathan regiment, believing that he was doing the right thing to serve the empire. Badly injured and disillusioned he returns to his home city. Not surprisingly, his path crosses with Viv’s. Further complications ensue when his younger brother Najeeb becomes her willing pupil. She enthuses him with a love of history and archaeology. Quayyum disapproves. Anti-British feeling is growing, and he’s aware that his friends are joining the jihadist freedom fighters.

I’ve found with Shamsie’s other novels that the pace of the first half of the novel is quite ponderous, as characters and plots are carefully established. The final section slowly builds to an almost unbearable state of tension as all the clashes of culture, personality and politics come to a climax.

The style is perhaps a little too florid at times, but there are the usual Shamsie flashes of brilliance. She skilfully evokes the heat, colours and beauty of what the British used to call the northwest frontier, and the volcano of indignation and outrage that erupts in the ‘native’ population (as the British patronisingly calls the indigenous people). Even Viv shows a lack of sensitivity and awareness of her privilege and unconscious arrogance as a white woman, despite her genuine love for the place, and the twelve-year-old Najeeb. She fails to realise how she compromises him and herself in the eyes of his family and the community by taking him under her tutelage.

What’s so effective in Shamsie’s fictional explorations of these cultural tensions is that she avoids crude black-and-white oppositions, good v. bad. Viv, for example, has experienced arrogance and disdain from patriarchal British society, and sees herself as something of a feminist. So it would have been easy to set her up as some sort of emissary, a bridge between the Peshwari community and the politically myopic British imperialists and brutal military.

As I mentioned earlier, Quayyum is far from being a firebrand anti-Brit; he’s genuinely conflicted about his loyalty to empire as a veteran of the Western Front, where he fought alongside British soldiers and others from across the empire. But when he’s wounded and being treated in a hospital back in England, he’s appalled to discover that the military and ruling class won’t allow young women nurses to tend non-white male patients – such is the fear of some kind of contamination. He also discovers that the hospitals for Indian wounded men are effectively prisons, and the patients are lied to about the whereabouts of their wounded comrades. Without preaching, Shamsie succeeds in showing both the casual cruelty but also the capacity for kindness of the imperialist British, and the not always pure-minded mentality of the oppressed people who are finally provoked into rebelling against them.

I used to think that Britain’s colonial past – the world Shamsie describes in this novel – was as low as we could sink in terms of unethical, amoral political arrogance. I was wrong. Our prime minister and his team continue to reveal themselves as lacking in any kind of integrity or decency. Maybe Kamila Shamsie should turn her attention to present day Britain.

Other posts:

Home Fire (brief note) HERE

Burnt Shadows HERE

 

 

Patrick Gale, Mother’s Boy

Patrick Gale, Mother’s Boy. Tinder Press, 2022.

Patrick Gale is a Cornwall-based novelist, and much of his fiction has a Cornish setting or theme. Mother’s Boy, his latest novel, is his spirited account of the life of one of Cornwall’s most famous writers: the poet Charles Causley (1917-2003).

Patrick Gale Mother's Boy cover A friend of mine said he thought it misrepresented some aspects of the life; I don’t know enough of the biography to comment on this. In my ignorance I enjoyed this as a well-wrought narrative. I think it’s ok for a novelist to exercise some imagination in selecting from the ‘facts’ of a life and leavening them with ingredients that suit their artistic purpose (within reason, I suppose, so that’s a bit of a cop-out on my part).

I won’t go into the details of Causley’s life as portrayed by Gale, as this might interfere with your own response. I can say that he lived most of his life in the small market town of Launceston, near the border with Devon. His childhood was quite tough, as the household had a small income. He didn’t fit in with school very well, and was bullied at times. In a small community this was problematic.

After a spell during and shortly after WW2 in the Navy, he trained to teach and returned to his home town to teach in the school he’d attended as a child. In his younger days he wrote plays and fiction, but gradually specialised in poetry. His style and themes show the influence of local folklore, ballads and the oral Celtic-English tradition, making his poetry more accessible than many 20C English poets.

The term ‘mother’s boy’ is usually pejorative, but here it’s largely positive. He had a very close relationship with his mother. His homosexuality was risky in the years when it was still illegal, and this may have contributed to his relatively secluded life.

Patrick Gale writes his story with great sympathy; it’s not a hagiography, for we see aspects of Causley’s life that aren’t entirely flattering. His intimate relationships were initially faltering and not always fulfilling as he struggled to come to terms with his sexuality. He clearly found it difficult to commit to a full-on relationship with anyone other than his mother.

Much of the novel deals with his younger, more formative years. Gale creates atmospheric scenes portraying small-town life, and then the claustrophobic world on board naval vessels – which interestingly he likens to that in prison – in ways that provide not just colourful, event-filled narrative, but also show the building of an artist’s mind.

John Harvey, Coup d’Etat

John Harvey, Coup d’Etat (Holland House Books, 2020; first published 1985)

 John Harvey is a renowned Cambridge academic who’s written some fascinating studies on the nature of and relationship between the visual and literary arts (see my list of links to his non-fiction works at the end of this post). He’s also a prize-winning novelist (my list of posts on his novels is also at the end of this post) – not to be confused with the author by the same name of the popular crime fiction series featuring Charlie Resnick.

J Harvey Coup d'Etat Coup d’Etat is set in Greece during the military dictatorship 1967-74 following the ‘Colonels’ coup’. This group of far-right, ultra-nationalist officers seized power and brutally suppressed all opposition, establishing what was euphemistically called a ‘national government’. To consolidate and enforce the junta’s stranglehold on the country the colonels transformed the judiciary into a corrupt system of kangaroo courts: those who dared to question their regime were summarily imprisoned, tortured, executed or exiled.

The central characters of this gripping, epic novel (it’s 600 pages long, but needs to be in order to depict the scale of events and their effects on the Greek people) enable the author to anatomise the functioning of this dictatorship. On the side of democracy is a brave, idealistic lawyer who tries initially to use his expertise to defend opponents of the junta, and then becomes another of its victims. He suffers terribly while in prison, and his wife undergoes her own ordeal trying to cajole the authorities into even revealing where they’ve imprisoned him, let alone to visit him.

Supporters of the regime are not shown simply as ogres and sadists, though many come close – not just the torturers in prison, but those who command them. More nuanced in this aspect of the narrative are those who strive to further their own political careers by sucking up to those higher up; like many in Nazi Germany, they were complicit with the regime while fully aware of its more brutal tendencies. Some are ideologues who have bought into the colonels’ aspirations to create a new Greek empire – with devious plans to reconquer Turkey by staging another coup in Cyprus, which could then be used as a springboard to invasion of their old enemy. Others are simply amoral in their ambition to use the corrupt system to enhance their status and gain more of the trappings of wealth and power they admire in their superiors.

An early reviewer described Coup d’Etat as Tolstoyan, and I don’t find this an exaggeration. Dr Harvey unflinchingly portrays the viciousness and monomania of the military regime, its ruthlessness in imposing its dictatorship in ways which have become horribly familiar over the last century, and which continue to fill news reports today about the war in Ukraine.

But he also shows enormous sympathy for and insight into the hearts and minds of his characters representing both sides in this terrible period of Greek history. Families caught up in the tumult of the times are shown as being often split in terms of their political allegiances and motivation – as all families are (I’m trying to avoid falling into the usual Tolstoy quotation).

Most impressive among the literary achievements of Coup d’Etat is the central trio of the loving couple of the lawyer Vangelis and his devoted wife Chryssa. Here again the author shows a capacity for showing human frailty and weakness even at times of enormous courage and resilience in their struggle against the cruel regime. The character of their English friend Michael, a journalist, enables John Harvey to provide a convincing outsider’s perspective on the turmoil and suffering caused in the lives of these ordinary, decent people by their military oppressors, but also to introduce a complicating, heartbreaking alternative love story into these already precariously situated lives.

In the foreword to this new edition of the novel, first published in 1985 and now reissued by Holland House as part of a full set of his novels (my thanks to the author and his publishers for providing copies of some of those I hadn’t yet read), Dr Harvey explains his own personal interest in telling this harrowing but uplifting story. In 1968 he married Julietta in her home city of Thessaloniki, and they witnessed many of the events depicted in the novel, and were told more about them by those who had been caught up in events during that dreadful time in the world’s oldest democracy.

This explains the gritty authenticity of the novel, but also the heartfelt, passionate engagement with it by the narrator, the sweep and tone of the narrative, and the richness of the characterisation.

My previous posts on John Harvey’s novels:

The Paint Shop (1979) HERE

The Subject of a Portrait (2014) HERE (three posts, including one by the author)

Pax (2019) HERE

Non-fiction/academic:

The Poetics of Sight (2015) HERE

Clothes (2008) HERE

Men in Black (1995); The Story of Black (2013) HERE

 

Great and terrible year: Bulgakov, The White Guard

Mikhail Bulgakov (1891-1940) The White Guard (Alma Classics, 2016)

I bought a half-price bundle of Bulgakov novels from Alma as I’d never read his work before, and thought I’d show some solidarity with war-scarred Ukraine. I started with the surreal-satirical The Master and Margarita (posted about last month HERE).

The White Guard is an early, largely autobiographical novel begun in the early 1920s. It took Bulgakov years to complete, and went through many redactions. A final version in Russian proofread by Bulgakov was published in Paris in 1929 – there was a substantial émigré Russian population there. It wasn’t published in a complete version in Soviet Russia until 1966. Again it’s highly relevant to the terrible situation in Ukraine today.

It’s set in Kyiv in the harsh winter of 1918-19, a ‘great and terrible’ year, as the novel’s opening words describe it, when the city was shelled and besieged by right-wing nationalist forces exploiting the departure of the German troops who’d defended it until their defeat in November in WWI. There’s a scattered, ineffective defence by raw cadets and a few officers – most of whom had deserted. They’re under-equipped, disorganised and overwhelmed by superior opposition forces – similar in many ways to the tragic events that are taking place in Ukraine now.

Everyday life in Ukraine’s capital has become terrifyingly dangerous. Then, as now, its citizens hear the awful sounds of artillery shells bursting ever nearer the centre of the city. Their attackers show no discrimination in their assault: then as now the tactic is to annihilate the fabric of the cities attacked, and to drive out the inhabitants or kill them if they remain. Arbitrary acts of anti-Semitism and cold-blooded murder are frequent.

The plot centres upon the Turbins, a cultured bourgeois White (pro-Tsar, with allegiance to pre-revolutionary Russia) family and their close circle of friends. Alexei, a young military doctor (as Bulgakov was) is wounded in the conflict and narrowly escapes death (possibly after a mystical intervention by the Virgin Mary). His sister Yelena’s husband, an officer in the Ukrainian forces supposedly defending them, has (like most of his peers) deserted his city and his wife.

It’s a stirring, gripping account of ordinary city folk enduring terrible hardship at the hands of a cruel and murderous enemy – the nationalists are about to be succeeded in their onslaught by the Bolsheviks (Reds). This is perhaps why Bulgakov’s stage play based on this novel was said to be Stalin’s favourite, and why the author was not sent to a gulag or executed, rather than just censored: he portrays the invincible, crushing might of the Bolshevik revolution, against which the Chekhovian bourgeois-liberal ignorance and dreaminess of the likes of the Turbin family and their friends are inevitably doomed to be eliminated.

The style has a modernist, fragmented approach (songs, poems, dreams) and tone that reminded me of Döblin’s Alexanderplatz, among others (maybe Dos Passos, too, with its random snippets of newspaper stories and unattributed dialogue). Eisenstein’s montage technique in film also comes to mind – especially in a parade/religious service scene near the end when the nationalist forces are celebrating victory.

Amid all the savagery Bulgakov shows love and hope in this family and their friends. There are some apocalyptic and literary allusions (especially to War and Peace and more generally to the fiction of Dostoevsky), strange symbols and magical/surreal moments, as in The Master and Margarita – see the link above to my post. Some of these contribute to the sense that none of the factions in this terrible war is perfect; the focus on the White Turbin family presents them with all their illusions, prejudices and flaws, while the nationalists and Reds who are about to crush their lives and culture are portrayed more as ruthless ideologues rather than the romanticised saviours that Stalin would normally have preferred in such representations. It’s all, as Stephen Blackpool says with characteristic stoical bafflement in Hard Times, a muddle.

I read it while suffering from a heavy cold, which added to the sense of weirdness in the narrative. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the dreadful news from Ukraine that fills our airwaves daily, then you might prefer to give this novel a miss. On the other hand, it provides vivid historical context to these events, a salutary reminder that Soviet-sympathetic Russia has always had designs on Ukraine’s territory and people, and is convinced that it has an imperialist (if not divine) right to sovereignty over a nation whose separate, independent and autonomous existence it refuses to recognise or respect.

 

Spies and misdemeanours: le Carré, Boyd, Hill, Beirne

Time for a survey of recent reading.

John le Carré Silverview (Viking, 2021) This was passed on to me by Mrs TD: le Carré’s final published novel before his death two years ago. It’s a complicated story involving an ex city trader turned (non-bookish) bookshop owner who gets tangled up with spies, double agents and conspiracies. It’s entertaining as far as this kind of thing goes. The title is the name of the house where a shady former MI5 agent lives, imitating the name of Nietzsche’s house, of all people. I’d always thought the rural county of Suffolk was a peaceful, serene place to live (my parents and sister lived or still live there), but according to this novel it seems pretty much everyone in that part of East Anglia is involved in espionage and skulduggery.

William Boyd Love Is Blind (Penguin, 2019) I read this on the way back from Italy and left it on the plane, so rely on memory for this note. Brodie is a Scots piano tuner with a monster of a tyrannical father (a firebrand vicar-preacher, implausibly). Brodie falls in love with a Russian opera singer who’s also involved with a virtuoso concert pianist and his brutish brother. After hair-raising scrapes in various European cities Brodie finds himself in a remote jungle island assisting a pioneering woman ethnologist. As one does. The plot is even more complex than the le Carré. When Brodie discovers he has TB it gets even more tangled. The characters are a bit flat, but the descriptions of piano tuning are strangely engaging. This competent novel would have benefited from some editorial pruning.

Susan Hill The Comforts of Home (Vintage, 2019) Another handed on by Mrs TD. It’s one of a series, apparently, with the central character called Det. Chief Inspector Simon Serailler. It seems inevitable in this cop-centred genre that he’s a maverick rule-breaker and loner, despite being a serial flirt. The main crime (a murder on a Scottish island) at the heart of the plot is the least interesting part of the novel – it’s the relationships between Serailler, his GP sister and her husband, who’s also his boss, and her sons, that are the most entertaining aspect. There’s also a cold case (another nasty murder) that Serailler is put on to by said boss to ease him back into work after a horrific accident in which he’d lost his arm – an incident presumably from the previous novel in the series. I can’t say I’ll rush to read another one, though it’s all efficiently done, if a bit predictable.

Luke Francis Beirne Foxhunt (Baraka Books, 2022: ARC courtesy of the Canadian publishers). A cold-war thriller rather like early le Carré. In 1949 a Canadian writer called Lowell moves to London to edit a new magazine intended to promote Western literature, values and culture and its artistic freedom compared with the repressive regime of the Soviet Union. When a Canadian colleague is murdered he begins to realise all is not as it seems: the magazine’s backers are as sinister in their way as their enemies. The politically naïve Lowell undergoes a painful education in the amoral games played by these characters who lurk in the shadows. I’m not a huge fan of espionage novels, but this one is skilfully crafted and has an original premise and richly drawn characters. The revelation at one point that the Soviets were experimenting with advanced nuclear weapons is eerily pertinent given recent news about the brutal war/invasion in Ukraine and related developments.

There’s a foxhunt at one point, hence the title, but it’s not one as Trollope would have depicted it.

Rome visit 2: including a Mary of Egypt

Last time I wrote about the gorgeous mosaics in the basilica San Clemente that we visited during our short break in Rome recently. Today I’d like to say a few things about some of the other outstanding places we saw.

Bernini elephant I particularly liked the Bernini elephant near the even more spectacular Pantheon. Revealed to the public in 1667 in the Piazza della Minerva, the animal bears on its back one of thirteen huge Egyptian obelisks dotted around the city’s squares. This one was probably brought to Rome in the first century for a temple to Isis located here. It dates from c.580 BC. He has an admirably long, curling trunk, and a slightly worried expression. Probably the effort of holding up such a heavy load.

We walked across the Tiber – which was criss-crossed by swooping swallows feasting on insects just above the surface of the water (still haven’t seen any in Cornwall) – to Vatican City and the impressive avenue leading up to St Peter’s. Visitors were told to wear FFP2 face masks. A young woman ahead of us had passed through bag checks but then been turned back by the next level of security. She was asking people if they had a spare mask. She was so distraught we took pity on her and found a spare in our rucksack. It was worth it for the beatific smile she gave us.

Inside the basilica was jaw-dropping. It’s the largest structure I recall being in – including the massive hangar where Concorde was built in Filton (I’ve mentioned my student vacation job there before). It’s not necessary to relate what’s to be seen there. It starts with Michelangelo’s Pietà just inside the main doors – then the wonders continue.

I was expecting a rather more ostentatious, opulent interior, having seen so many Baroque churches in our wanderings in Rome, but St Peter’s is relatively restrained, even austere in comparison. It’s still sumptuous, of course, but my expectations of distasteful excess were not fulfilled. It was a genuinely spiritual experience. We even joined a service of mass. Mrs TD was raised a Catholic, so was thrilled to take communion in such a place. We didn’t understand too much of the sermon, but I gathered it was about good and evil, and renouncing the devil. Not surprisingly. We watched the film The Two Popes on Netflix when we got back: made a lot more sense having experienced the place for ourselves.

Bernini's baldacchino St Peter's I would single out for special mention the enormous baldacchino over the high altar under the basilica’s dome. Completed by Bernini (again) in 1634, it’s twenty-six metres high – as high as many palazzi in Rome. Rather like the more portable palanquins, these structures would originally have been tent-like cloth canopies; this more grandiose, architectural example is made of bronze. The name derives from ‘Baghdad’, because the cloth used in early versions of these canopies originally came from there.

Mary of Egypt St Peter's Regular visitors to TDays will know of my interest in hagiography, and in the legend of St Mary of Egypt in particular. Rome has several representations of this penitent ascetic saint, and even a temple that was once a church dedicated to her. Time didn’t permit a visit to all of these, and I stupidly neglected to research properly where to locate the statue of her among the 140 figures perched on top of the grandiose portico-terrace curving round the square in front of the basilica. Hers is one of a group of 24 in the north colonnade , and they’re so high up it’s hard to identify them from ground level. So now I’m home I’ve returned to the online image (link HERE) and can pick it out properly from the dozens of others – next time I’ll know exactly where to find her and can take my own pictures.

There were so many other places in Rome that I could enthuse about, but I think I’ll leave it there. I’d single out for passing mention the moody Caravaggios in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi near where we were staying by the Piazza Navona, and another in the neighbouring San Agostino church.

I could write a whole post just on the Piazza Navona itself. One of its three beautiful fountains – the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (1651) – depicts symbolically four great rivers: the Nile, Danube, Ganges and Plate. Bernini crops up again here: he designed it, and did one of the carvings. Legend has it that the figures facing his arch-rival Borromini’s church façade opposite are shielding their eyes from its horrors!

This is the church Sant’Agnese in Agone. As a former student of hagiography I’m thrilled to think that the relics of this saint, martyred when she was just thirteen, are enshrined here – on the site where the martyrdom took place.

So many places to return to or see next time. The Keats-Shelley museum by the Spanish Steps was closed, but it was good (and sobering) to see its exterior and think of poor Keats wasting away inside. The Trevi Fountain was thronged with tourists, but still breathtaking. As for the Colosseum – those Romans were brilliant architects and engineers. We’ll go inside next time.

 

 

Rome visit 1: a beautiful mosaic

We returned on Monday from a five-day visit to Rome – our first holiday abroad (apart from visiting family in Spain) since the pandemic began. We loved the city, and in particular the overlaps seen everywhere between sites and artefacts of different periods of history: step off a busy modern shopping street and stumble upon a first-century theatre or temple.

One of the most interesting examples of this layering of history is seen in the basilica of San Clemente, just a few hundred meters from the marvels (and tourist crowds) of the Colosseum. Friends had recommended a visit, and we’re so pleased we did. There are hundreds of beautiful churches in the city; there seems to be one on every corner (or tucked in the middle of an otherwise unassuming block). This one stands out.

St Clement lived towards the end of the first century; he was the third Pope, and is said to have been consecrated by St Peter. During the emperor Trajan’s anti-Christian persecution he was exiled to Chersonesus (near modern besieged Kherson) in the Crimea, and put to work in a quarry. Legend has it that he angered his captors by ministering to his fellow prisoners (and performing miracles). He was martyred by being tied to an anchor and thrown into the Black Sea.

St Cyril, a scholar born in Thessalonika, who developed the glagolithic alphabet (later adapted into the Cyrillic one), and translated the gospels as part of his mission to evangelise the Slavic peoples, found Clement’s relics (and the supposed anchor to which he’d been tied) and had some of them brought to Rome in about 867. They are still preserved in a shrine beneath the basilica’s high altar. St Cyril’s own relics are also preserved in this basilica, along with those of his brother and fellow author, theologian and missionary, Methodius.

A relic of Clement’s head was claimed by a cave monastery at Kiev. It’s sobering to think of these events as Ukraine suffers now at the hands of the same Russians who plundered and destroyed much of their Christian heritage over the centuries (and rewrote their history), and in particular under the Soviet regime of the 1920s-30s.

The existing building dates from about 1100, with 17C alterations. What’s fascinating is that it stands on a subterranean layer of earlier structures. Just beneath is a 4C church, converted from an earlier Roman nobleman’s villa. Underneath this is an even earlier space that had been used as a mithraeum – an altar and temple for rituals in honour of the Roman god (adapted from Persian practice) Mithras. From the 1C this area would have been used for clandestine Christian worship when this was still forbidden by the Roman authorities.

You have to book online to see these lower levels and their famous 11C frescos; unfortunately we weren’t able to do so when we were there – but it’s easy to find out about them (and find interesting images) online.

But it’s worth visiting just for the medieval basilica at street level. It’s stunningly beautiful. You enter through a nondescript door in a plain façade into a charming cloistered open courtyard, once used by the Irish Dominican monks who took over administration of the basilica in the 17C when they fled Protestant persecution in their homeland (see the pattern emerging here?)

San Clemente apse mosaic

Source Wikimedia Commons, licence CC-BY-SA 3.0; my own pictures weren’t very good

Apart from the sumptuously decorated ceilings and walls (with some lovely 15C frescos by Masolino in the chapel of St Catherine), the eye is drawn most to the gorgeous 12C mosaics and wall paintings in the apse.

The central image is of a vine growing out of a tree surmounted by a crucifixion scene. Figures of Mary, Jesus’ mother, and John stand beside the cross. Twelve doves (perhaps symbolising the apostles, as well as peace) perch on the cross. Paradise is represented, but also the earthly church and its people.

Various figures appear in the curved, gilded mosaic: various saints and prophets, but also, charmingly, peasants sowing seeds being eaten by birds, and others with their livestock and fowl. Two stags drink from the rivers flowing from Eden – an allusion to the opening line of Psalm 42.

Beneath these images stands a row of twelve sheep, representing the apostles, all facing the agnus dei in their centre. At each side are symbolic representations of Bethlehem and Jerusalem. On the walls beneath the apsidal dome stand figures of the apostles in human form.

The style and iconography are a mix of Byzantine and western tropes – a fitting blend for this city of historical congruences, cultural influences and historical layers.

More images and details of this mosaic can be found at this site.

 

 

 

 

 

Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita

Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita. Translated from the Russian by Michael Glenny (Everyman’s Library, 1992)

I thought I’d show some solidarity with besieged, invaded Ukraine by reading this novel by Kiev-born Bulgakov (1891-1940). He began work on it in 1928, and worked on various drafts until just before his death. It was first published in censored form in Russia 1966-67 and in smuggled-out versions in Paris and Frankfurt over the next couple of years. The first complete Russian edition appeared in 1973. It was dangerous and futile to try to publish anything under Stalin’s murderous regime that showed even the slightest hint of anti-Soviet thinking. As a large part of this novel pokes gleeful fun at the corrupt ways of Muscovites in that era, its fate was always going to be troubled.

Bulgakov Master and Margarita cover It’s a coruscating novel teeming with surreal incident and characters in multiple storylines. At its heart is a passionate love story between the two in the title. Margarita, who doesn’t appear in person until Book 2, ch. 19, is unhappily married when she meets and falls in love with the unnamed master. His novel based on the story of Pontius Pilate’s crisis of conscience after sentencing Jesus to death has troubled him so much he burnt the manuscript. This reflexive part of the plot mirrors the struggles Bulgakov had with this novel. ‘Manuscripts don’t burn’, says the devil to the master when his MS miraculously reappears, intact. It could serve as the moral of this novel – censorship can only partially silence truth.

Margarita gets caught up in the small retinue attending on Satan on his visit to Moscow, where he causes mayhem with his trickster’s black magic and mischievous sending up of the venality and greed of its citizens. She acts as sexy hostess to his spring ball, a macabre event attended by the undead. There’s witchcraft and poison, decapitation and shape-shifting.

Interspersed is the story of Pontius Pilate and the crucifixion, then the master’s version. So it’s a novel, among other things, about writing novels: the blurred boundaries between supposed real life and fiction. No matter how fantastic and supernatural the story becomes, the narrative is always conveyed with conviction.

Just what it all means is difficult to pin down. It’s easy to see a satire on Stalin’s soviet regime – but it’s never overt or heavy-handedly done. There’s a lot of fun poked at the literary world in particular: the writers’ club members enjoy a hedonistic life while promoting artistic mediocrity, and critics attack the works of honest writers striving to say something worthwhile and original, like the master.

It seems also to show how a totalitarian regime imposes its own version of ‘truth’ on its people. What we now call fake news. It’s about morality and its opposite, or absence, good v. evil – among other things. If the state decrees you’re all atheists, what do you do when the devil shows up? If there’s no God, then how can you believe in the devil?

There’s a lot of dark humour. Particular satisfying are Satan’s attendants. Foremost among these is Behemoth, the wise-cracking, talking cat who rides the tram (and dutifully pays his fare), shows off his pistol-shooting skills (though these aren’t as good as he boasts), and relishes making fools of the police when they try to arrest him.

The humour and surrealism have a Gogolian/fantastic edge, maybe even a whiff of Lewis Carroll (though I have no idea if Bulgakov knew his work), but this is tempered by the lyrical historical-realist style of the Pilate passages.

This might all sound a bit of a dog’s dinner, but Bulgakov manipulates his material with such panache that it just about works. I did find some of the satanic antics sections went on just a little too long at times, but the overall zest of the narrative kept me turning the pages.

I gave up trying to figure out what the ultimate message might be, and just enjoyed the whole Walpurgis-night broomstick ride.

The bottom bar told me at the end of that last sentence that this post contained 666 words. I couldn’t leave it like that…

St Hilary’s: part 2

Nave view

View of the nave looking east towards the altar; the striking crucifix image is by Ernest Procter

In my previous post I described the church of St Hilary, near Penzance, and some of the artworks by the former priest’s wife Annie Walke and her fellow members of the Newlyn School that decorate the interior.

First a word about the saint to whom the church is dedicated, and the painting depicting the dedication. Hilary was born in Poitiers around 315, and became bishop of that city. He was a vigorous opponent of the Arianism that was prevalent in the west at that time, and many of his writings were complex defences of Christian orthodoxy.

In England he gives his name to the ‘Hilary term’ of some of the more pretentious universities, and the courts of law (it begins on or about his feast day – 13 or 14 January). Hilary has been a name for both men and women since the middle ages. There are two other churches in England dedicated to him.

On the south side is a painting of St Hilary saying goodbye and blessing the people of Poitiers on going into exile.

On with the artworks. Many depict the subjects’ sympathy with animals and the natural world, as we saw last time. Not all are signed. They were painted by Alethea and Norman Garstin, Dod and Ernest Procter, Harold Harvey, Annie Walke, Gladys Hynes (whose brother Dr Hugh Hynes wrote the notes on the paintings in the guide leaflet) and Harold Knight.

Dedication of St Hilary's church

Dedication of St Hilary’s church by the monks of St Michael’s Mount

In the chancel on the north side is a picture of the monks of St Michael’s Mount (a short distance off the shore of Marazion, connected at low tide by a causeway) conducting the dedication ceremony. The monastery on the mount is visible in the top left background. As in the panels by Joan Manning-Saunders that I wrote about last time, the colours here are glowing and fresh. I like the way one of the monks processing towards the church glances out at the painting’s viewer, his expression inscrutable. The one at the rear looks a bit like Nosferatu – though I doubt this was the effect the artist was striving for.

St Morwenna

St Morwenna

Among the paintings of mostly Cornish saints is a dramatic one of St Morwenna, who gives her name to the town of Morwenstow, the northernmost parish in Cornwall, where she established a hermitage on arrival in Cornwall from Ireland, where she was receiving instruction. Its charismatic vicar from 1843 was Robert Hawker (1803-75), author of the ‘Cornish hymn’,Trelwany. He was an eccentric in his dress and behaviour: he built a hut out of driftwood on the clifftop and spent time there writing his poems and other works. Legend has it that he excommunicated his cat for mousing on a Sunday. He’s also known for his kindness, compassion, and devotion to his parish; he would be one of the first to attend the numerous shipwrecks that occurred at that dangerous stretch of coast, and gave drowned sailors a decent burial in his churchyard, rather than allowing the usual practice of burying them in unmarked graves in the sand on the beach where they were washed up.

Morwenna is thought to have been one of the many children of a Welsh king. One of her sisters is said to have been St Edelienta, whose portrait is also found in the choir, but I don’t include it here. Morwenna is depicted joining her nuns to to rescue travellers being robbed by a bandit called Gwenlock. I’ve been unable to trace the source of this explanation, taken from the church guide leaflet.

St Petroc

St Petroc

 St Petroc is reputed to be another son of a Welsh king or chieftain, who also began his training in Ireland. He sailed to Cornwall with other monks, landing in the Camel estuary. Here he established a monastic centre, Petroc-stowe (now Padstow). There are several charming legends concerning his kindness to animals: in this picture he’s shown sheltering a terrified fawn seeking refuge under his cloak from disapproving mounted hunters and their equally disgruntled hounds (there’s a similar legend about St Eustace, among others).

In another legend he removes a splinter from the eye from an unhappy dragon that had sought him out (a variant of the St Jerome legend – possibly calqued on the story of Androcles – in which he removed a thorn from the paw of a fierce lion; in iconography he is often depicted working in his study with the grateful, now domesticated lion snoozing contentedly nearby). His reputation for sympathy with all creatures was obviously well known, even in the draconian community (not the other kind, emulators of harsh Draco, the Athenian lawmaker).

St Piran

St Piran

 St Piran (or Perran), patron and most popular saint of Cornwall, is shown with more animals: his first converts – a badger, a bear and a fox. I’ve posted about him several times – link HERE.

Little is known about the St Senan, for whom Sennen Cove in west Penwith is named. There’s an Irish 6C abbot by that name, but the

St Sennen

St Sennen

Cornish one seems to be an unknown woman saint. The figure in this picture is clearly a venerable white-bearded man, who according to the guide leaflet had asked, after receiving the last sacrament, to be laid to rest under a blossoming May tree.

 

St Fingar (Gwinear, Guigner), is patron of Gwinear (near Hayle) seems to have been a 6C Welsh (or Irish) missionary, companion of Meriasek (Meriadoc), subject of the famous Cornish-language

St Fingar

St Fingar

mystery play. On a visit to a prince in Britanny, killed a stag. While washing the blood from his hands in a pool, he looked down at his reflection (like Narcissus) and concluded he looked too good for this kind of thing, so built a hut in the forest and devoted the rest of his life to prayer. In iconography he’s sometimes shown with a stag with a crucifix between its antlers, apparently conflating the legend of Eustace.

 

 

 

 

 

Blackbird, crows, a ram: St Hilary’s church decorations

St Hilary's churchA couple of years ago I posted about the memoirs of Fr Bernard Walke, the innovative and much-loved (by most; there were some dissenters) Anglo-Catholic priest in charge of St Hilary’s church 1913-36 (link HERE). My friends, the owners of the elegant cats, recommended a visit to the church, especially because of this connection with its warm-hearted, slightly eccentric priest, and the numerous artworks that decorate the interior – donated by friends of Annie Walke, Bernard’s artist wife, and an associate of the nearby Newlyn school of artists. They include pieces by Annie Walke herself (a striking portrait of an armoured Joan of Arc), Roger Fry, Dod and Ernest Procter and Harold Knight.

We went on a blustery day last weekend. The church is tucked away down a lane at the edge of the tiny village of St Hilary, a few miles outside of Penzance. It’s a rural, sparsely populated district, fairly bleak and largely agricultural. The copper and tin mining industry that used to thrive here, and which Fr Walke tried in vain to revive during his time in the parish, has long gone, and much of the working population moved on with it.

A chap we met in the church was visiting from London. He told us that he’d been born and brought up in the village, and although a Catholic he used to attend services in the church sometimes (after Fr Walke’s time). He said the locals were very poor in his day – most didn’t have running water. Now, he added ruefully, the place had become gentrified, and in his view had lost much of its gritty character.

The church is set in the highest point of the swelling land between the Marazion and St Ives, where the peninsula of Cornwall is only a few miles wide. It’s thought that there would have been a Roman fort on the site originally, then various early medieval churches, possibly with other dedications. I’ll comment on the dedication to St Hilary of Poitiers in a later post.

Apparently the 13C spire can be seen from both coasts. It’s rumoured that the port of St Ives is said to have paid to whitewash it, to act as a navigation and orientation point for sailors. The paint is no longer there.

The spire and tower are the only surviving parts of the last of the two or more medieval structures. It burnt down in a disastrous fire in 1853. The rebuilding used much of the original stone material in the two following years.

Joan Manning-Saunders nativity scene

This appears to be a nativity scene, with fairly conventional setting – except for the very Cornish-looking engine house in the distance

There are too many pictures that I took of the paintings that decorate the interior for one post; let’s start with the pictures on the parclose screen in the Lady Chapel, in the NE end beside the altar. These vibrantly coloured panels were painted by the remarkably precocious 12-year-old Joan Manning-Saunders (1913-2002).

She was living at Sennen

Joan Manning-Saunders scene 2

This seems to be the shepherds being told by an angel of the nativity – unperturbed by the frisky sea serpent below.

Cove, a few miles west of St Ives, near Land’s End, when Fr Walke commissioned her to paint this sequence of panels – I think they’re watercolours. They’re scenes from the New Testament, but with her own idiosyncratic interpretations.

A couple of years later, when she was just 14, she became the youngest ever exhibitor at the Royal Academy in London, a feat she repeated the following year. She became famous over the next few years as

Joan Manning-Saunders scene 3

This seems to be a rather hallucinatory annunciation; the young woman (Mary?) seems to be having a picnic with a Cornish pasty and half-finished bottle of red wine. A goat admires the languidly stretching leopard floating over a tree. Lions lie down with lambs.

a youthful prodigy, but her career faded in her later life.

So what’s a ‘parclose screen’? They’re designed to screen a chantry or side chapel from public areas of the church like the nave or chancel (the space around the altar at the east end of the church). Such screens are often richly carved and decorated to allow for light to enter and to enable some sight of the altar during eucharist or mass.

I’ll end this first post with the three painted wooden panels around the pulpit (by Ernest Procter?). There’s St Mawes (Maudez or St Mawes with ramModez in Breton, where he founded houses and was said to be a bishop, and where he’s better known.) Cornish tradition has it that this 5C saint established his hermitage in the small coastal town opposite Falmouth that bears his name. He was possibly a monk and missionary from Wales, founder of monasteries in Cornwall and Britanny. I’ve been unable to find a source for the iconography in this portrait, which depicts the ram that he employed to carry his prayerbook. I suspect this and other unusual iconographical features in other pictures in this church simply reflect the taste and imagination of the artists.

St Kevin with birds' nests

St Kevin seems to have a bird’s nest in each hand here! Inquisitive rabbits look on from their burrows.

St Kevin (Coemgen) was the 6-7C hermit, founder and abbot of the monastery at Glendalough, Co. Wicklow. The most famous and charming of the many legends about him is depicted here: he prayed for such a long time in the ancient orans prayer posture (arms outstretched, palms upwards) seen in the painting that a bird (usually portrayed as a blackbird) built a nest in his hands. When he realised what was happening he chose not to move as this would disturb the bird. After it laid an egg Kevin waited until it hatched, and the baby bird had fledged. In another legend he’s said to have fed the members of his monastic community on the salmon brought to him by an industrious otter. I posted long ago about another helpful otter in Bede’s Life of St Cuthbert (link HERE).

There are many such legends of (especially Irish) saints that serve to show the affinity between saints and the natural world. I recall first reading about this many years ago (before my academic research into medieval hagiography) in a delightful book intended originally for children by the wonderful Helen Waddell: Beasts and Saints, a collection first published in 1934 of her translations from the legends in their original Latin.

St Neot admonishing crowsSt Neot is shown admonishing hungry crows: don’t eat the seedcorn sown on the ground. His dates are unknown but he’s said to have a Glastonbury monk who became a hermit on Bodmin Moor in Cornwall, where he founded a small monastery; a village there bears his name. The legend of King Arthur burning the cakes originally appeared in a Latin life of Neot.

Once again I’ve not found the source of this legend of the crows (it might have been borrowed from another saint’s life; it reminds me of the scene early in Hardy’s novel Jude the Obscure, when young Jude is too soft-hearted to scare off the crows feeding on the seeds of the farmer who employed him to do so – rather the opposite message than the one in this picture). Better known is the legend of the wild stags which came and offered their services to him when his oxen were stolen by thieves (don’t you just hate it when that happens?) The stag often features in the iconography of Neot.

More next time. I’m indebted for some of the detail here to the church guide, which includes notes by Dr Hugh Hynes on the paintings and decorations.