John Harvey, The Legend of Captain Space

John Harvey, The Legend of Captain Space. Holland House Books, 2021. First published 1990.

 Holland House published John Harvey’s most recent novel, Pax, in 2019 (link to my post on it HERE: the artists Rubens and Van Dyck feature prominently, as well as a fictional modern British artist), and decided not much later to publish his backlist of fiction. He should be better known as a novelist, given the quality and range of his output.

There’s an artistic theme also in his excellent 2014 novel The Subject of a Portrait, which deals with the tangled real-life relationships between the Pre-Raphaelite artist Millais, his mentor the art critic John Ruskin, and Ruskin’s young wife Effie. My post on this, with two guest posts, one by the author and the other by the publisher, Michael Flay, are found HERE.

The publishers kindly sent me the three titles I hadn’t posted on previously. First up was his earliest novel, The Plate Shop (1979), set in an ailing English engineering factory. Coup d’Etat (1985) is set in Greece during the brutal military colonels’ junta. You see what I mean about the variety and range of his subject matter.

John Harvey is not a prolific novelist: five novels over a period of four decades. This was probably because of his other career as an eminent academic at Cambridge University, where he specialised in the relationship between visual arts and literature. This interest is reflected in his four non-fiction studies of colour, clothes and illustration (especially in Victorian literature).

Harvey Legend of Captain Space cover At the heart of The Legend of Captain Space is the portrayal of another troubled married couple. Nick is a handsome long-distance lorry driver who dreams of breaking into the world of motor racing. When his wife Sandy gives birth to a baby boy, Davey, she struggles to bond with him. His father nicknames him Captain Space when the boy is a toddler, and delights in being swung in the air.

This portrayal of the struggles of parenthood is the most interesting aspect of Captain Space. The doting maternal figure is a commonplace in the perception and representation of women in much literature and art; Harvey subverts that image wickedly as Sandy is driven literally to run away from her fractious baby at one point. She’s guiltily jealous of the easy familiarity Nick, a not very attentive father, superficially develops with his difficult son. Her child tends to frighten and appal Sandy.

The marriage not surprisingly hits the rocks. Sandy struggles to find a life for herself without the responsibility of being a mother, and begins to realise that she misses Davey after all. Nick meanwhile bounces slobbishly from casual sexual encounters to drunken pub brawls. Will he be able to fulfil his dream of becoming a racing driver, given his undisciplined nature? Will Sandy learn to love her son?

I have to be honest and admit I didn’t really care that much. I didn’t find these characters very appealing. I daresay that exposes me as a limited reader – but I felt the central characters were too caught up in their sordid, selfish obsessions for much empathy to develop for them.

It’s all handled with Harvey’s customary poise and narrative deftness, but I’m afraid this floundering couple failed to sustain my interest consistently.

But there are plenty of positives. Nick isn’t entirely without humane, softer feelings. When he gets a job on a farm, he’s given the job of driving a combine harvester. When he sees blood on the blades, he gets down to check he finds to his horror that he’s inadvertently ‘scythed a rabbit’. When he continues harvesting the crop,

[he] kept watch. When he saw a patch of brown, he stopped and climbed down. He could walk up close to the animal. It crouched flat, its sides quivered, its feet didn’t move. A shining eye watched him come.

‘There, mate, there. Easy as you go.’ He reached out and touched it, its hair was bristly. He stroked it, amazed.

‘It’s OK, captain.’

The style here is characteristic of the rest of the narrative: sparse, unadorned, yet highly evocative and visual (not surprising for an author so sensitive to the visual arts). This passage is typically painterly; it puts me in mind of Dürer’s famous print of a young hare – an impression I suspect John Harvey intended.

I hesitated before posting this, having responded with less enthusiasm than usual to this writer’s work. It doesn’t inhibit me from recommending you try any of his fiction or non-fiction. It’s all alive with humanity and finely observed insights, characters and relationships, the ways in which people portray those lives and connections – to themselves and to others (and sometimes in artistic representations). He’s one of the most gifted and rewarding modern English novelists. I just couldn’t always get on with poor little Davey, Captain Space, and his dysfunctional parents.

Not so magic mountain: Sebastian Faulks, Snow Country

Sebastian Faulks, Snow Country. Vintage, 2022. First published 2021

I went last month to Cyprus with Mrs TD for my brother’s wedding (he lives there: wanted sunshine after years of dreich Aberdeen). I read Sebastian Faulks’s new novel, Snow Country, on the journey there. I’d probably have given up on it after a hundred pages if I’d started it at home.

I read somewhere that this is part of the author’s ongoing project to write fiction that deals with matters concerning the treatment of people with mental health problems. Unfortunately this plays only a peripheral part in what is in fact a historical romance.

The fractured structure doesn’t help with the dragging pace. Part one is set in Vienna in 1914. Anton is not a psychologist, however, but an aspiring journalist. He falls in love with Delphine, a French governess to a wealthy family’s children. When war breaks out she disappears, leaving him bereft and heartbroken.

Then it’s 1927 and a new set of characters abruptly appears. Part three jumps ahead to 1933, to a mountain-top asylum (hence the novel’s title) for (finally) those people with mental health problems. These various storylines and some of the characters come together. But they do so very slowly, and the asylum setting is pretty inconsequential. The inmates/patients appear only in the background; it’s the proprietors and staff Faulks is interested in. The unsubtle echoes of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain serve little purpose, and come to nothing.

We get a lot of the history of the asylum and the people who founded it; too much, in fact. Faulks’s research is intrusively apparent. The central love stories eventually resolve themselves in ways that could have been deeply moving and satisfying, but somehow they just don’t quite come to life as one would have hoped – it all feels too forced. I felt the author was more interested in the setting and its back story than in these rather insipid characters he’s placed there.

I much preferred the only other Faulks novel I’ve posted on: Paris Echo (link HERE).

England has been sweltering in a heatwave – like most of Europe – this past week. Here in Cornwall it’s usually much cooler, and sea breezes have kept the temperature down. As I write this it’s started raining (with thunder) and it’s more like a normal July summer – but central England is forecast to hit over forty degrees. Hotter than Cyprus!

 

 

May Sinclair, The Tree of Heaven

May Sinclair (1863-1946), The Tree of Heaven. British Library Women Writers, 2020. First published 1917.

 When I checked my archive I was surprised to find it was four years ago that I first posted on a novel of May Sinclair’s : The Life and Death of Harriet Frean (1922; link HERE). It’s not surprising, given the date of publication of The Tree of Heaven (1917), that its central theme is the calamitous loss of young lives in the carnage of WWI.

This is much more than a war novel, however. Much of the first half is given to a detailed, colourful portrayal of the growing lives of the Harrison children in a London suburb. There are three brothers, Michael (a maverick loner), Nicky (wayward, capricious) and young John. Their only sister, Dorothea, is clever and independent, painfully conscious of her mother’s doting preference for her sons. This might partly account for her joining the burgeoning suffragist movement (of which May Sinclair, a proto-feminist, was an active member).

Sinclair shows how these children’s lives develop according to their temperaments and inclinations. One becomes an avant-garde poet, one of an iconoclastic group that sounds very like the Vorticists. Another impulsively marries a bohemian artist, and lives to regret it.

But looming in the background is always the impending war. The image that dominates the first part of the novel is what the narrator calls ‘the vortex’: the whirlpool of social and cultural pressure and conformity against which Michael rebels (so the Vorticist label is strangely appropriate and inappropriate). He refers to it as the ‘herd soul’, and it’s this that impels so many young men to sign up to the military when war breaks out. This impulse of patriotic ardour is repellent to him.

What becomes of them all is predictably sad. There’s some strange mystical stuff involving one character who appears to have visions of her loved ones at the point of their death. The ash tree in the Harrison garden, which gives its name to the novel, also serves a symbolic, mystical purpose, though I’m not quite sure what that is. Yggdrasil, the Norse tree of life in Asgard, perhaps.

Once again, as in Harriet Frean, Sinclair is at her best in examining and depicting the lives of spirited, non-conformist people, especially young women, in abrasive contact with a stifling world of convention and (usually male) privilege. But she avoids stereotypes; Dorothea’s feminism is tempered by a distaste for the methods and ideology of the more radical members of its movement. As with so many suffragists, the war caused her to reassess her commitment to the cause, and her own beliefs about fairness and equality.

Frances, the siblings’ mother, eventually wakes up from her trance of maternity and becomes aware of the terrible reality of mortality and mutability.

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

 

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.

John Harvey, The Plate Shop

John Harvey, The Plate Shop. Holland House Books, 2021. First published 1979.

John Harvey The Plate Shop cover Holland House is an independent London publisher founded in 2012. They recently released all five of John Harvey’s novels in a ‘revisited’ set. Here at the Days there are several posts about The Subject of a Portrait, his excellent 2014 novel about the tangled lives of Ruskin, Effie Gray and the artist Millais (links HERE). In one post I introduced him like this:

[JH]) is a distinguished academic: he’s University Reader in Literature and Visual Culture at Cambridge, and a Life Fellow at my old college, Emmanuel. This interest in the ways in which visual art and fiction intertwine is reflected in this novel, and in his two books on the socio-cultural and literary significance of the colour black.  Men In Black (1995) explores the meaning of clothing and colour, and in particular the way that Victorian men’s clothing went dark, reflecting the constraint and self-abnegation of that period. He explores how Dickens and Ruskin (subject of the novel under discussion here) assessed its ‘paradoxical aspects of repression and self-assertion’. The Story of Black (2013) develops this theme in broader symbolic terms, including aesthetically and sexually. (Links to these posts at the end.)

In 2019 wrote about Pax, his most recent novel, which also deals with the worlds of art and eros. It tells of the visit to London in 1629 of Rubens, and of another artist in 2003.

I was delighted to be sent by John and the publishers a set of the reissued novels that I haven’t yet read. The Plate Shop was his first novel, inspired by his experience as a student doing a vacation job. The ‘shop’ is part of a factory making heavy machinery. The novel deals with what the author calls in his introduction to this edition ‘the hard relationship between Money and Work in the world.’

This was a time of economic and technological change, and the plate shop is precariously placed. It represents outmoded methods, old technology, is a relic of the industrial revolution. New ways of manufacturing and marketing commodities and new foreign markets are taking over, and Britain’s traditional economic dominance in this world is precarious. Dinosaurs like this shop needed to modify (evolve?) or die. The catastrophic miners’ strike of 1984-85, just a few years after this novel is set, marked a low point in this corporate decline, and was the beginning of the end of Britain’s manufacturing and industrial status.

There’s a large cast of characters, brutalised and exploited by the work ethic of the time; their response is to behave tribally, to operate in packs. One of the most sympathetic is different, an outsider and foreigner, ‘not one of us’, a Czech plater who’s sacked in a case of racist bigotry only too casually apparent at that time. I recognise these characters and this setting from my own time as a student in the early seventies in a vacation job at a factory outside Bristol that made the British parts of the supersonic aircraft, Concorde. Like John, as an academic I was consigned to the technical drawing office – a smoke-filled den (chain-smokers, all of them) deep inside a huge hangar. Mine was a tedious clerical job: no heavy machines, drilling or plating for me.

Dominating the plate shop is the larger-than-life figure of Clyde, the bullish but fading shop foreman, who symbolises in human form the doomed nature of this field of manufacture. He used to rule the shop, using his mechanical genius to fix problems and impose his will on his awe-struck workforce. But just as the pictures got smaller, so the machines became more complex, and he’s struggling to maintain his dwindling authority. He’s out of key with his time – and so is his shop.

The hated Time Study men now threaten his role, with their stopwatches and timesheets that determine the schedule and control for each worker. Clyde becomes increasingly bemused and frightened as he sees himself becoming redundant, superfluous.

The gripping prose style is Dickensian, synaesthetic: all harsh, clanking, metallic sounds and vivid light and dark in many of the scenes set in and around the workshop (which is most of the novel). These descriptions remind me of Hard Times, which could be seen as a sort of precursor to The Plate Shop. Here’s an example from the very first page, showing the artist-author’s realisation of the concrete in a multi-sensory, poetic style:

From dazzling points in the walls, pencils of light came in. Colours came out in the machines, which stood clear in all their different shapes: an upshooting wiry machine was all run and whip and gleam of tough silver threads; a square red casing stood rigid at attention, severe, burning in upright fire. Beneath a soaring tree of girders sprawled a long low humped and curved machine – deep-green, enormous – like a dangerous armour-plated creature asleep. In the girders above, a fat amber cable curled among the leads like a snake asleep among vines.

See what I mean about the Dickensian tone? Those images, that hint of dark satanic mills.

The Plate Shop also reminded me of those gritty black-and-white films of the sixties and early seventies, often in heavy industry settings, like ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’. These also portrayed that end-of-an-era period of decline and depression, the technological and social revolution that turned the smoky, complacent world of (soon to be) post-colonial Britain into a vacuous, superannuated nation of service industries, manufacturing all gone, and a deep sense of grievance, loss and entropy in its working population.

This novel is a brilliant, deeply felt elegy to that grimy, world of decaying heavy industry and capitalism.

It’s good to see that Holland House have included some of the original illustrations John Harvey produced for the first edition, but which had not previously been published. These reveal the author’s academic and aesthetic speciality: Victorian Novelists and their Illustrators (1970: his first non-fiction book).

My posts on John Harvey’s books about the colour black HERE; on Clothes HERE.

 

 

 

 

 

Guilty pearls. Jane Gardam, The Man in the Wooden Hat

Jane Gardam, The Man in the Wooden Hat. Abacus, 2018. First published 2009

 This is a sequel to Jane Gardam’s Old Filth, about which I posted a couple of years ago (link HERE). The Man in the Wooden Hat tells much the same poignant story, but from a different perspective.

OF was largely an account of the life of Sir Edward Feathers, an undistinguished jobbing London lawyer who moved to Hong Kong and revived his career. He went on to become a respected judge back in England. We learnt about his damaged childhood, and the knocks he endured and which shaped him into the fragile, emotionally scarred man he became.

Jane Gardam The Man in the Wooden Hat cover Wooden Hat gives the story from his wife Betty’s point of view. We don’t get so much information about her childhood, but the formative experiences of her life were her exhilarating war work at Bletchley Park during WWII – she was clearly a brilliant mind, contributing to the breaking of enemy codes – and subsequent horrors in a Japanese prison camp. Like Edward, she’d been a ‘Raj child’ – raised in the far east and shipped home for exiled schooling away from her family.

 

Both characters then are emotionally unsuited for the rigours of enduring married intimacy. There are fissures in the relationship from the start: Edward’s proposal, their honeymoon, early years of marriage – all lack the spark of romance. There is love, but it’s of a frail and unfulfilling kind. As they grow old together they become accustomed to life of quiet acceptance, creating a genuine bond, but with something missing at the heart of the relationship. Probably because of their respective damaged emotional states, and the problems that fate provides for them.

The awful cad Veneering reappears, too. He’s Edward’s professional (and romantic) rival. There’s a crucially symbolic gift of ‘guilty pearls’ that functions like Chekhov’s gun, with a heartbreaking twist at the novel’s end.

Edward and Betty’s whole adult life is sketched in with unobtrusive compassion and understanding: their mis-steps, regrets and fleeting moments of insight into what might have been.

As in OF, the narrative is carefully crafted. The emphasis is on character and what makes a person feel and suffer. There’s more on the odious colonialism and casual sexism and racism of the times; Jane Gardam presents this unflinchingly but without tub-thumping.

The narrative voice is again poised and assured. This is a writer with whom you feel in safe, caring hands.

 

 

Philip Hoare, Albert & the Whale

Philip Hoare, Albert & the Whale. Fourth Estate, 2021.

I think I first became interested in whales after reading Moby-Dick as a student. Many years later I read Philip Hoare’s strange book about them: Leviathan, or the Whale. It was first published I think in 2008. A few years before then I’d seen a pod of southern right whales, rolling and blowing in the sea below us off the coast of South Africa. We’d gone there with friends who had an apartment in Cape Town. We saw more whales just off the beach in another bay nearby. These are among the most magical experiences I’ve had.

Philip Hoare Albert & the Whale cover

My library copy has a plastic protective cover, hence the nasty shine in this picture

 Albert & the Whale revisits the world of cetaceans, largely through the quizzical eyes of the German artist-genius, Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528). As in his earlier whale book, Hoare does this through indirect means: a mix of art history and criticism, memoir, impressionistic detours into the lives and work of the likes of Jung and Freud. Writers are adduced, from Melville himself to Auden and his circle, Thomas Mann and Marianne Moore.

The mix doesn’t always work. At times it’s all just a little too impressionistic and fey. At its best it’s amazing, similar to the more effortless brilliance of Sebald; Hoare is in a lesser league (though he pinches many of Max’s tropes, like the grainy monochrome photos – some of them selfies) – more akin to the less earnest, much funnier Out of Sheer Rage (1998), Geoff Dyer’s eccentric account  of his failure to write a biography of D.H. Lawrence.

On the way there are some hit-and-miss prose poems inspired by the most famous of Dürer’s paintings and woodcuts, including Melancholy, St Jerome (with the weird comet in the background) and St Eustace. The book’s title is a bit misleading, because a whole menagerie of creatures, real and imaginary, feature in the text, such as narwhals and walruses, the armoured rhino with its extra dorsal spike, and octopuses.

Perhaps Dürer’s most famous animal engraving is that of the hare. Hoare’s account of it begins: ‘Like the turf, like her eye, she’s the world’ –

The hare was sacred to the Germans, believed to reproduce parthenogenetically, and so was associated with the Virgin Mary. But the hare quivers as she crouches, un-annunciated. Her ears are smooth and soft-resisting; like her vibrating whiskers, they’re visible sentience, sensing a world beyond our own. She’s wild, ready to be picked up and turned over, to lie entranced in your arms….

This is sensitively done, but it’s a shame that the author prolongs such flights too long (there are five more lines of this: it becomes strained). With just a little pruning this book’s meditation on time, mortality and the relationship between humans and the animal (and wider natural) world could have been even better.

There are seven pages of beautiful colour plates at the end. Together with the many black-and-white images throughout the text, these more than compensate for the purple prose. I learnt a lot, too, about the life and work of Dürer, his influences and those he influenced. I was less interested in the obsessively detailed information about how much Hoare paid for his drinks in cafés, or the price of admission tickets to the many museums he visited.

Flowering currant Spring is beginning to show its colours here in Cornwall. Today’s walk took me past a house at the end of my road where these lovely flowers are blooming; I think they’re flowering currant. Magnolias and daffodils are coming to their peak.

Occupied San Francisco, atom bombs and lost words

It’s been a while since my last post – busy with work. So this will be a catch-up on recent things.

First crocus

This was the first crocus to appear in a pot in our garden, taken on 28 Jan

 Philip K. Dick, The Man in the High Castle. PMC, 2001; first published 1962. I bought this during the presidency of the last incumbent, now just a nightmare memory (or will he return?). It looked for a while like he was going to make this counterfactual story come true. The plot involves a post-WWII America in which the Nazi – Japanese axis powers won the war. The Japanese occupy the ‘Pacific States’ zone, the Germans hold the eastern zone, with a buffer zone in the mid-west.

I’ve read very little sci-fi/fantasy, but I suppose this falls more into the category of speculative fiction – like Len Deighton’s SS GB, or Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America – both of which I found entertaining but not entirely satisfactory. As with most good sci-fi the genre lends itself to some fierce critical insights into the ‘real’ world of our time.

The title refers to a weirdly postmodern novel-within-the novel which tells an alternative counterfactual history of the war: this time the allies defeated the Nazis, but what followed isn’t in line with what ‘really’ happened. I rather liked this head-spinning reflexiveness. The author, rather like the Wizard of Oz, turns out to be much less than his grandiose ‘high castle’ solitude and anonymity would suggest.

I’d seen a couple of episodes of the TV series on Amazon, but gave up on it. It’s similar to but different from the novel, and much less interesting.

Daffodils and blossom

These daffodils and early blossom have appeared in a local park, taken two days ago

 Kamila Shamsie, Burnt Shadows. Bloomsbury, 2009. Kamila Shamsie’s 2017 novel Home Fire was one of my favourite books of last year (brief post about it here). This one came even more highly recommended, but I found it slightly less impressive. It still packs a powerful emotional punch.

It begins in Nagasaki, 1945. A young Japanese woman survives the bomb, and the rest of the novel traces her subsequent life. She travels to India, then to Istanbul and post-partition Pakistan. Much of the central plot involves her teenage son’s reckless flirtation with some of the forces of violence in this turbulent part of the world. Oddly enough, given this dramatic subject matter, I found the central part of the novel flagged rather, though it picked up in the last part, and developed a tension almost as unbearable as that in Home Fires.

Pip Williams, The Dictionary of Lost Words cover Pip Williams, The Dictionary of Lost Words. I just returned this to the library, so don’t have publication details to hand. It’s similar in some ways to Eley Williams’ The Liar’s Dictionary (brief mention of this one at the same link as above). Both novels involve words that didn’t make it into a major dictionary.

In this one the central character is Esme. As a little girl she likes to hide and play under the table at which the eminent scholar-lexicographers edit the ‘slips’ – small pieces of paper on which the words and entries about them are written and then filed in the pigeon-holes ready for collation and publication in the Oxford English Dictionary. There are colourful depictions of the famous editor, James Murray, his family, and many of those involved in the making of the dictionary, and of the long struggle to get to the end of the project that took nearly fifty years to finish. In a way it never did. It was first mooted in 1857, work began a few years later, and the last fascicle was published in 1928. Supplements and updates have been appearing since. I use the online edition all the time, and have referred to it often in this blog.

The ‘lost words’ collected by Esme begin (significantly, given its meaning) with the slip for ‘bondmaid’, which she finds under the table, dropped by one of the editors. She hides it away in a secret trunk, and over the following years builds up a large collection of her own. This becomes a sort of feminist alternative to the venerable (and patriarchal) OED. Esme’s words are culled from her visits to the covered market in Oxford: the taboo words, slang and vernacular of the women who were denied a place at high table, even if they did eventually get admitted to the universities.

This feminist angle is the strongest part of the novel. It culminates in the grand dinner held in 1928 to celebrate its completion. Several women, including Esme and two of Murray’s daughters, had been key members of the editorial team; many of the public who contributed words and citations – including Esme’s beloved aunt Ditte – were also women. None of them were allowed to attend this august, all-male event. A few were allowed in the gallery to look down at the men eating and drinking.

Not surprisingly the novel includes forays into the suffragist movement, and shows Esme’s awakening to the cause of rights for women – and the working classes who were also excluded from the privileges of the male elite. There’s a rather tedious romantic sub-plot, and some tragedy.

The research intruded too much into the narrative for my taste. The issues, despite their worthiness, dominated the characterisation. I’d have been better off reading a non-fiction account. I’d recommend Simon Winchester’s The Surgeon of Crowthorne (1998), about one of the more unusual contributors to the OED, and The Meaning of Everything (2003) by the same author.

Laurel berries

According to my plant identifier app these are Japanese laurel berries. Wonderful colours and texture.

As I write this we’re being battered here in Cornwall by storm Eunice. I had to take down my new bird feeder pole, fearing it would be torn up and become a flying spear. The birds are gathering, confused, in our magnolia tree and keep looking reproachfully and hungrily up at our windows.

I’ll place throughout this post a few pictures taken recently showing the first stirrings of spring in the area.