Squirrels as you’ve probably never thought of them

I was reading a review the other day in the online version of the UK newspaper The Guardian. The book reviewed was about the grey squirrel, and raised the problem of determining what is meant by ‘invasive’ or alien species. Once introduced to the British Isles, are such plants or animals a useful addition to the ecosystem, or a threat? And the grey squirrel is perhaps one of the most common and controversial of such introductions (from the USA – like many of our language features – but that’s another story).

At the end of the piece was a word the meaning of which was obvious, but which I’d not come across before:

SCIURINE

OED online defines it like this:

adj. and noun, Of or relating to squirrels or to the squirrel family; resembling or characteristic of a squirrel; (Zoology) of or relating to the tribe Sciurini… (earliest citation, 1838).

Zoology. A sciurine rodent; a squirrel (1841).

Further down the list of citations is this figurative one I rather liked: His sciurine hoarding of books and papers. [Vita] Sackville-West, Flame in Sunlight.

In a similar vein is this: Acknowledgements… Pam Wheeler, whose uncommonly sciurine memories at the Britten-Pears Library, Bridcut, Faber Pocket Guide to Britten

All the previous ones were zoological and literal. Does this mean that for the most part the word in the modern era has shifted into use in a metaphorical sense – as in ‘squirrelling something away’ – to suggest someone hoarding or hiding something they value in a manner similar to the squirrel’s habit of burying nuts and other foodstuffs for food in the barren months of winter?

The word derives from the Latin Sciurus, squirrel (and its genus), itself derived from the Greek skiouros, from skia, shade, and oura, tail.

A little further digging online revealed that a male squirrel is known as a boar. A group of squirrels – the collective noun, I suppose –  is a scurry, or a drey – which can also refer to a mother squirrel and her young, according to one website (I didn’t record which one). But this term is to my mind better known for signifying the squirrel’s nest.

As I live in Cornwall I decided to look up the Cornish word; it’s gwiwer.

According to the excellent website Jeanne de Montbaston, by the medievalist and scholar Lucy Allen, the slang term in medieval England for what she delicately refers to as ‘male genitalia’ was ‘squirrel’ – because it was ‘delightfully cute and cuddly’ and a ‘furry little pet’…Hm.

She goes on to place all this in the context of one of her central research interests: the cultural understanding of male and female bodies and sexuality.

So there you are. Who’d have thought that the furry little rascals who regularly empty my birdfeeders have such raunchy connotations…

There is something nasty about me. Paul Auster, The Brooklyn Follies

Paul Auster, The Brooklyn Follies Faber & Faber (2006; 20051)

This is the best Paul Auster novel I’ve read in a while. He’s on his most engaging form when he tells a gripping story with characters drawn with sympathy and insight, and that’s what he does for the most part (more on that later) in The Brooklyn Follies.

As the title suggests, the setting is his usual multicultural home ground in New York City. He specialises in characters who are damaged in some way, or with a flawed perception of themselves and others, and having to solve problems they are ill-equipped to deal with on their own. The foregrounded voice of our narrator, a retired life insurance salesman called Nathan, provides plenty of evidence of these features. He admits he was a bad husband to his wife (serial affairs – but then she did the same – and little effort to sustain the marriage) and bad father to his daughter Rachel, now grown up and with marital problems of her own.

After commuting daily throughout his working life from the suburbs into his Manhattan office, he’s now divorced, recovering from cancer, and looking to start a new life in Brooklyn, where he’d lived and been happy as a child. He upsets Rachel, who’d suggested he needed a ‘project’ to set him back on course. He bluntly rejected that advice and makes nasty remarks in relating this conversation about the platitudes with which she expresses herself:

Yes, I suppose there is something nasty about me at times.

But he can also be charming and empathetic, and wins her round, eventually. There’s always a hint, though, that he manipulates people with an edge of cynicism. I suppose that was one of his strengths as a life insurance salesman.

The plot is too complicated to summarise here. It centres upon his dropout nephew Tom, also lost in his own way in the metropolis. He’d ended up as a sales clerk in a second-hand bookshop run by a man who turns out to have a dubious and criminal past. He involves Tom, and in turn Nathan, in a convoluted scam that twists and turns in unexpected and unsettling ways that keep the reader invested in the fates of the main characters.

The interest is deepened by the role played by Lucy, Nathan’s nine-year-old niece. She’s smart, and has a winningly literal way of interpreting of words and language, and also the way people around her behave. When she enters the lives of Tom and Nathan, she has the effect, with her fascinating combination of naivete and no-nonsense insight, of causing them to reassess their situations and make things better.

I could see her as a grown woman developing into someone like Flora Post in Cold Comfort Farm. She has a similar resolving impact on the chaotic lives of those she comes into contact with, but without the prissiness.

That similarity also brings out one of the stronger features of this very readable novel: despite the twisting, plot-driven narrative, there’s always a whiff of humour and playfulness in the telling of this story.

On the down side, there are some of the rather more annoying aspects of Paul Auster’s approach to storytelling: the characters tend at times to become caricatures or types. The individuality and humanity so successfully built up and portrayed for the bulk of the time are undermined by these moments.

These traits didn’t ultimately spoil my enjoyment, though, of this stimulating and skilfully crafted, highly entertaining novel. And isn’t that one of the main reasons we read fiction? To be entertained, stimulated, maybe challenged and unsettled a little?

The only two novels posted on here (I read most of Auster’s earlier fiction pre-blog) are:

Mr Vertigo  – link HERE

Invisible – link HERE

 

Éric Dupont, Rosa’s Very Own Personal Revolution

Éric Dupont, Rosa’s Very Own Personal Revolution. QC Fiction, 2022. Translated from the French by Peter McCambridge. First published as La Logeuse in 2006 by Marchand de Feuilles

In Rosa’s Very Own Personal Revolution, a lively translation into English by Peter McCambridge and Éric Dupont’s exuberant storytelling combine to produce another highly entertaining and unusual novel.

My post on Songs for the Cold of Heart HERE a few years ago suggested that Dupont is fascinated by the stories we tell each other – among other reasons, to answer the big existential questions we – and his characters – raise. As in that earlier novel, Rosa involves personal quests for larger truths than those found at home.

That all sounds rather serious, but this novel is great fun, and fizzes with idiosyncratic energy. It’s much shorter than Songs… as it deals mostly with the quest of just one character, Rosa (unlike the multiplicity of quest narratives in the earlier novel). There are also, as in Songs…, plenty more stories-within-stories, myths and fables, which usually serve to contribute to Rosa’s evolving enlightenment.

She’s brought up as a fervent Marxist in a small, sleepy village on the Gaspé peninsula in Québec province. Boredom infests the air – literally. Rosa sets out for the big city of Montreal to seek the west wind that would blow the poisoned air away, for the village’s wind has gone. Beneath this Wizard of Oz-type playful surface of the novel, though, is a sterner metaphorical (and at least partly) political element: take the air out of a region’s atmosphere and its people become atrophied (perhaps indifferent to their fate), and that leaves them vulnerable to malign political and other influences.

Along the way Rosa takes up with a group of strippers with whom she becomes great friends. She gets a job as a receptionist at a hotel where she gradually realises the women she befriends there are sex workers.

Among Rosa’s endearing qualities are her naiveté but also her moral/political probity: when one of the women finally explains to her what’s going on in the hotel, Rosa accepts what they do as their own business. She’s not judgemental about what women do with their bodies.

On the other hand, she refuses to keep quiet when her boarding house landlady Jeanne pontificates about the importance of preserving national identity in the province. It’s not that Rosa (or, I suppose, Dupont) is against such ideas; her spirited objection is to the borderline xenophobic attitude behind the over-zealous condemnation of anyone who Jeanne believes to be a threat to the culture and traditions she belongs to.

I think the strange title refers to Rosa’s epiphany towards the end of the novel that the Marxist revolution she’d been brought up to revere is less important than her own personal one. Her epiphany is a kind of non-revolution. She wasn’t cut out to be the saviour of her village; her quest was to find herself. But I may have got that quite wrong…

It’s maybe not the most original of morals, and the satire I found sometimes misfired, but the sheer zest and fun in the narrative compensate for some of what I thought were less successful digressions and non sequiturs that Dupont carried off with more panache in Songs for the Cold of Heart. That’s not to say it’s not worth reading. Dupont writes with such a sense of fun that it’s impossible to resist Rosa’s charm.

QC Fiction continue to expand their catalogue of English translations of Québec fiction in French with novels that maybe vary a little in literary quality, but are always stimulating and original.

My thanks to them for the advance reading copy.

Isabel Colegate, Orlando King

Isabel Colegate, Orlando King. Bloomsbury, 2020. (First published in three volumes, 1968, 1971, 1973.

June reading part 2.

Isabel Colegate’s trilogy published as Orlando King is an odd one. I liked it, with some reservations.

A boy with disfigured feet, raised in near isolation on a remote island in Britanny by a reclusive scholar, accidentally kills his biological father (not knowing his identity) and goes on to marry that man’s wife – technically his mother. Later, bereaved and half blinded in a WWII blitz bombing in London, he goes to Tuscany in lonely exile, joined by his daughter Agatha.

It’s the Oedipus story, of course, as dramatized in Sophocles’ Theban plays. Agatha is Antigone.

In vol. 2 Orlando and Agatha become very close in Italy. She persuades him to return to the UK. The business he’d built up there in vol.1 – and become rich, as well as a celebrated MP – is to be taken over by one of the arriviste post-war tycoons. This is the sociopolitical element in the trilogy: the decadence and decline of Britain and its former empire, and its transition into a second-string power.

The third volume shows the aftermath of Orlando’s death (surely not a spoiler, given the clearly stated parallels in the first pages of vol. 1 to the source material). There are numerous swanky parties, and serial adulteries continue (Orlando and his late wife were both culprits). Agatha-Antigone’s story involves her criminal act in trying to help her brother Paul out of a serious scrape with the law (let’s face it, he was a traitor). As a consequence she herself is arrested, and Paul doesn’t come out well from his attempted escape.

That very sketchy outline of some of the basic plot details, updated cleverly from the Greek source, doesn’t do justice to what’s more than just an interesting experiment in adapting a classical, seminal story. It’s very well written, and keeps the interest in what is after all a familiar story from flagging through stylistic innovation and nuanced characterisation.

There are numerous abrupt shifts in time and place, similar to cinematic jump-cuts. There are lyrical and evocative descriptions of settings, with socially insightful accounts of the upper echelons of society pre- and post-war. Some of the scenes involving the Evelyn Waugh-type ‘smart set’ get a little tiresome – most of these people are loathsome drones, or self-consciously, superficially clever.

Isabel Colegate was writing about a social class with which she was familiar. Her father was a Tory MP, she was brought up in a lavish country estate, and was a cousin of the Duchess of Kent. It’s no surprise that Julian Fellowes has acknowledged a debt to her work in his scripts for the film Gosford Park and the popular TV series Downton Abbey  – both of which portray the privileged life of the landed gentry (and the less privileged fates of those who serve them).

Many of Anthony Trollope’s novels also deal with this world half a century or so earlier. He too exposes the strengths (such as they are) and weaknesses of the upper classes in Britain, their hypocrisy, snobbishness and sense of entitlement, as well as corruption and self-interest in the related worlds of politics and high commerce.

I daresay these three novels won’t appeal to everyone, but they’re well worth a look, if you can stomach some of the awful people you’ll meet in them. Even physically beautiful Orlando is a deeply flawed protagonist: selfish, vain and unethical. He’s a sort of innocent Candide figure, as a result of his unusual upbringing in his island retreat, but he rapidly learns to become as effortlessly amoral and lacking in conscience as his fellow businessmen and politicians once he’s returned to Britain.