Tuesday, 29 June 2010

The Cornish Trilogy by Robertson Davies

I’ve been very conscious of putting off writing this review, not least because I read one posted earlier in this Challenge, by Steve Zipp. Steve's comments were so much to the point that I felt unable to add anything at the time, and I’m not sure that’s changed! However, I shall not let myself be daunted, although I shall restrict myself to a single post on the three books, which I first read about twelve years ago, I think. I loved them then, and couldn’t understand why I had never heard of the author until I discovered Canadian literature. Yes, they were all published in the UK, but where was the body of critical work applauding a giant of twentieth-century literature? British interest in CanLit seems to focus on women writers – Carol Shields, Alice Munro, Margaret Laurence (and, of course, the other Margaret). Alistair MacLeod sneaks in on the Celtic fringe, but Davies seems to have been largely ignored. Yet the minute I started to read, I was spellbound, because he is a terrific, albeit oldfashioned, storyteller.

The trilogy tells the story of the late Francis Cornish, a wealthy but slightly shadow-y figure of the Canadian establishment, of good family, but latterly reclusive. In the first book, The Rebel Angels, Cornish has just died, and his three academic executors find themselves responsible, in collaboration with his nephew Arthur, for the disposition of a considerable collection of art and objets. Their task is complicated by the return to Toronto of the disreputable and manipulative “Brother” Parlabane, and the presence of graduate student Maria Theotoky, to whom all the executors are decidedly partial. Lust for Maria vies with lust for artefacts, and moral and sexual turpitude make the reader hope that some, at least, of the characters will meet a bad end.  Fortunately, Maria’s overwhelming gypsy mother and uncle take a hand, bullying Maria and dictating the fate of the cast with the aid of the Tarot. Much of the action is seen through the eyes of Simon Darcourt, a priest of distinctly medieval tendencies (fondness for wine, art, food and Maria being mostly virtues, but demonstrative nonetheless of human weakness). And medievalism does indeed hold thematic sway throughout the trilogy: gypsies, the Tarot, the training of an artist in the renaissance tradition, the Arthurian legends and courtly love are deftly woven through the fabric of all three books, with appearances by Francis’s daemon, a recording angel and the ghost of the composer Hoffman all putting in appearances.

The middle book, What’s Bred in the Bone, might also have been called “portrait of the artist as a young man”, as it follows Francis’s path through his Ontario childhood, to England where he falls in love with his English dream in the shape of his cousin, and on to Germany before the start of the Second World War, where he apprentices himself to an artist. Beyond these formative years, in fact, we know very little of Francis, as he is absent in the last book as in the first. The Lyre of Orpheus anatomises the newly formed Cornish Foundation’s first attempt at patronage, when they commission an opera. Based on a lost work by E.T.A. Hoffman, the opera Arthur of Britain, will be followed to its first performance, and will represent the graduate thesis of student (and genius) Hulda Schnakenburg. The story of Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot is played out in real life against the inevitable ups and downs of the production, and Davies is in his element here, because he loved the theatre and all its accoutrements, so comedy and tragedy combine to create an immensely human and sympathetic work. Somewhere I read someone's comment that Davies seemed to be the kind of a guy who liked to hear himself talk, and it's absolutely true (you have only to remember his readiness to tell a ghost story every Christmas at Massey College to know that he loved an audience) - if you are the kind of person who can enjoy a barnstormer, then you will like his writing. If you can't bear an opinionated author, then steer clear. Tentatively, I think if you like Dickens, you'll probably like Davies, because he writes the same kind of larger-than-life characters, and books with the a similarly baroque nature. He's certainly the most English of Canadian novelists - like his Francis Cornish he spent time at Oxford, and his writing is masculine and mannered even at a time when Canadian writing was beginning to preoccupy itself with shaking off such characteristics. For me, that's no criticism - while I love and applaud where Canlit went from there, good writing remains just that. 

Monday, 28 June 2010

Wakefield's Course by Mazo de la Roche

This was a read for the Canadian Book Challenge, which is rapidly approaching its denouement. Warning - plot spoilers in the third paragraph!

In my teens one of my greatest treats was finding an unread volume of the Whiteoaks saga on the shelves on the library. I knew that family tree by heart, who married whom, and when, how many children they had, whether they liked horses...they felt like an extension of my own family, the Irish-Canadian branch, as it were (the English branch, of course, included the Eliots of Damerosehay, my other favourite family saga). My mother had devoured them equally enthusiastically, and we discussed our favourite events and characters. Predictably, she had been in love with Renny (she was much more seriously horse-mad than me, the result, no doubt, of having a dashing cousin who ran a racing stable and with whom she spent many horsy hours), while Finch, sensitive and musical, was much more my type.

Wakefield's Course comes comparatively late in the saga, taking place in the shadow of impending war. Events in Europe are perhaps more immediate for the Whiteoaks than for some Canadians, as the younger members of the family, Finch and Wakefield, are both working in London, and Renny travels to Ireland with his young daughter Adeline, to visit his cousins Dermot and Malahide Court, who want him to buy a racehorse. Despite the undercurrent of tension, the Whiteoaks are as supremely self-centred as they have been in the previous eleven books, from the 4-year-old Archer up to the elderly uncles Nicholas and Ernest - I found the description of a family languishing for want of news much more movingly dealt with in the Green Gables books, where you actually felt as if there was suffering amongst the jingoism. Perhaps the battle for supremacy over Jalna (the family home) that takes place betweeh Renny's wife Alayne and his sister Meg is fractionally ameliorated by their concern for their menfolk, but I did feel that the war took second place.

Earlier, there is a lovely interlude in Wales, when Wakefield visits the family of his theatrical colleague Molly - although Molly's family is decidedly eccentric, there's a delightful calm before the storm feel to the description. I'd have liked more of that and less of the histrionics between Finch and his estranged wife Sarah. I found myself wondering if it was more acceptable for emotions to run high in the days before we became accustomed to the kitchen-sink drama of television soaps? Anyway, it's hard to imagine a marriage as brittle as Finch and Sarah's ever beginning these days, not least because they would have lived togather for a couple of months, realised what a disaster it was and split up - much as happens in an earlier episode, but without the angst, because it wouldn't have been formalised. (Incidentally, the Whiteoaks look pretty unusual themselves, in this regard, having a high divorce rate, rather singular for the period.) Such goings on as living in sin wouldn't have been entirely out of place at Jalna, either, Finch's brother Eden having produced a child out of wedlock, but at least he had the decency to expire shortly afterwards. The matriarch Adeline would have deplored such behaviour outwardedly, of course, but she always encouraged Renny's wildness, so perhaps she has much to answer for.

For a 14-year-old that was hectic stuff, and I'm afraid it influenced me far more than was desirable - well, I have to blame something for my own adolescent histrionics! It was fun to dip a toe back into such heady pages, but I'm afraid I've rather grown out of so much drama and, where once I suffered with Alayne, I now want to shake her and tell her to stop spoiling her children so dreadfully. All in all, the Whiteoaks are a noisy, undisciplined bunch, and I think I prefer the more ascetic Eliots. Next stop Damerosehay, I think.

For those who might be amused, this is supposed to be the house that Jalna is based on, now a museum. Sorry it's such a tiny image, it's the only one I could find.

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

On the Art of Making Up One’s Mind by Jerome K. Jerome

"It is in our faults and failings, not in our virtues, that we touch each other, and find sympathy. It is in our follies that we are one."

This slim book is elegant both in appearance and content, a pleasure to look at and to read. The witty, beautifully-crafted essays, taken from Second Thoughts of an Idle Fellow are similar in tone to that of his autobiography, My Life and Times, recognisable from the more famous Three Men in a Boat, but not as frothy. Despite the darker tone, this collection of five essays made me laugh out loud: it’s full of wonderful vignettes of Edwardian life: the runaway horse, for instance, who turns out to be going home alone because his master has been too long in the Rose and Crown, or the practical recycling of egg boxes: “with a sufficient supply of egg boxes…no young couple need hesitate to face the furnishing problem”. In my youth it was packing cases.

It might be considered that Jerome is unfair to women, since here they are often the target of his observations, but we have only to remember Three Men in a Boat to see that he is as gently scathing of masculine foibles. Human nature is his subject, and I must admit that the conversation between the two women getting ready to go out (“On the time wasted in looking before one leaps”) reminds me too much of my mother and myself, but the man in this essay has been dismissed in a short paragraph at the outset, making an inconsiderately brisk exit when he knows that if he announces his intention beforehand, he will be detained while his wife decides what errands she wants him to run. His writing is characterised by opposition in both sentence – “let us play the game of life as sportsmen, pocketing our winnings with a smile, leaving our losings with a shrug” – and idea – his all-too human Cinderella, dissatisfied with her new life, contrasts with the fairytale idyll. His humour depends on contraryness.  

Jerome flouted convention by writing in colloquial English, and that is what makes his style so accessible today. He is chatty, matter-of-fact, energetic and forceful, he takes off on divagations and his taste for farce foreshadows the later writing of P.G. Wodehouse, but in miniature – where Wodehouse creates a canvas of improbability, Jerome paints the detail in the corner. This he combines with delicious (and very British) understatement and self-deprecation. This is just the sort of book that I like to leave by the bedside for guests to pick up and dip into, and I’m delighted that LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers sent it my way. Since I finished it I’ve picked up the autobiography again, because Jerome is an excellent companion.

Friday, 18 June 2010

The Rainwild Chronicles by Robin Hobb

What was most surprising about The Dragon Keeper, after the sheer density of Robin Hobb’s earlier Liveship Traders series, is that it is so slight: where are the interweaving plots, the multi-stranded stories separating and diverging? Where the Liveship books were a veritable serpent tangle to be patiently teased out through the course of three books, with hints  gleaned from the two other series set in the same world to both elucidate and cloud, here are simple strands to follow from page one to the end.

The Dragon Keeper starts where The Liveship Traders leaves off, with the tangle of serpents which has been guided up the Rainwild River to the ancestral grounds where they can make their cocoons and hatch as dragons. Three people have a particular interest in the hatching. Leftrin, captain of the barge Tarman, one of the first of the liveships, has one of the few vessels with a shallow enough draft to navigate the upper reaches of the Rainwild beyond the hatching grounds, and his help is needed when it becomes necessary to move the young dragons. Alise Finbok has spent her adult life studying dragons and the Elderlings, and is the foremost expert in Bingtown, though scarcely acknowledged as such. Her learning is from ancient records, so when the opportunity to travel to the Rainwilds to actually see the dragons arises, she grasps it with determination. We also follow Thymara, one of the group of young Rain Wilders recruited to become dragon keepers – their task will be to hunt for and care for the dragons during the journey in search of the ancient city of Kelsingra, where it is hoped the dragons may find the extensive hunting grounds they lack at the city of Trehaug. The other character we are most concerned with is Sintara, the young dragon queen, a creature with all the arrogance of her kin, yet lacking the memories which should have been imprinted and reinforced at every stage of her life cycle. For the pattern of serpent, cocoon, dragon has been disrupted, the dragon Tintaglia who guided the serpents to the hatching grounds is long gone, and the new dragons are ill-formed and flightless.

I’ve mentioned before that I struggled with Hobbs' most recent Soldier Son trilogy, which I found laboured and depressing. I developed such an antipathy to the main character that it was an effort to continue, but I persevered almost t the end in the hope that somehow things would pick up at the last minute and my sympathies would be engaged. I had something of a precedent with the Farseer trilogies – I never found Fitz particularly sympathetic – and it was the Liveship series that first really hooked me, after which I went back to the others to look for more of those plot hints alluded to earlier. So it was a relief to dive straight into The Dragon Keeper and I raced through it in a couple of days.

Dragon Haven completes the story, and for obvious reasons, I don’t want to say much about it. Again, I whizzed through at speed, completely unable to put it down. The first book had ended with a cliff hanger, which I’d been dying to see resolved and, although the young dragons are a pretty surly bunch, it’s hard not to feel sorry for them, so I desperately hoped that all would work out well for them.

I loved the covers to both books – they were a real pleasure to look at. Two  more to count towards the Once Upon a Time Four Challenge, which has been as ever enormous fun, with some wonderful reviews.

Friday, 11 June 2010

Oxford Menace by Veronica Stallwood

The Oxford mysteries featuring writer Kate Ivory belong in very much the same bracket as Jill Paton Walsh's Imogen Quy books, or my favourite, Hazel Holt's Mrs Malory (Sheila Malory has strong ties to Oxford, with early books about visits to old college friends and to her student son).

During the course of this series Kate progresses (at least, in her mother's eyes) from being a single woman with cat (which seems appropriate for the genre) to having a live-in partner, and has grown closer to her rather rackety mother, Roz, from whom she had been distanced, if not quite estranged. The still slightly difficult relationship with Roz often causes her worry, as when Roz takes up with some very dubious and predatory friends. There is also a shady ex-husband whom Kate has never met.

In Oxford Menace, however, Roz is in the background (or more exactly, on the phone) and the focus has shifted to the family who are amongst Kate's closest friends, the Dolbys. It's a large family, with lots of fierce Oxford aunts, and those chapters which revolve around the Dolby household, with apparently countless children (their own and other people's) are a particularly strong feature - you can see that Stallwood has known lots of similar Oxford families of harrassed, over-busy academics living amid a clutter of bikes, wellies and books on the Woodstock Road. Apart from her old college friend, Emma, Kate is fondest of the eldest son, Sam, now 18, and it is to her he turns when his girlfriend, Kerri, is being targeted by animal rights activists. Kate, who is one of those inquisitive types I can't comprehend but enjoy as fictional companions, is soon poking about and asking questions, trying to connect a series of apparently unrelated events, and the investigation proceeds much as usual in these cases.

Now, I must make it absolutely clear that this sort of domestic crime novel is meat and drink to me, and I scour the library shelves, and the virtual shelves of Bookmooch, for further instalments. I'm beginning to think, however, that Oxford is as dangerous a place to live as Midsomer (is Cambridge safer, or have I simply failed to find a series set there?). Kate Ivory's immediate circle seems very prone to murder and mayhem, so that I do feel she should choose her friends more carefully - if I knew her, I would definitely be avoiding dark alleyways. Since we are only fictional acquaintances, however, I shall continue to seek her out, and anyone who hasn't met her will be glad to know that there are eleven well-constructed, intelligent instalments, complete with atmospheric Oxford setting and likable heroine.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

The Find by Kathy Page

Two people from very different backgrounds, Scott and Anna, come together unexpectedly. Scott works in the hotel in the community where he has grown up – although he wishes for a change in his life, he sees no prospect of it; Anna is a palaeontologist, about to embark on a dig to excavate a fossil pterosaur. In a chance meeting, though, they seem drawn to each other – perhaps because they recognise each other’s history of family problems – and Anna tells Scott her secret fear, that she will succumb to the hereditary Huntingdon’s Disease that killed her father. A bond established between them, Anna invites Scott to work as a volunteer on the dig, essentially to be her personal assistant in case she shows any symptoms of the disease. Scott, desperate to get away from his alcoholic father without actually deserting him, seizes an opportunity to get him into a rehab home, and embarks on his new role despite his lack of confidence. Most of the other workers on the dig accept him in a friendly fashion, though there are tensions because the excavation has been divided into two sections to accommodate, Mike Swenson, an ex-colleague of Anna’s. This division is a cause of conflict first between Anna and Mike, then the two teams and eventually between the scientists and protestors from the local First Nations band, the St’alkwextsihn – this is land which is the subject of treaty negotiations. Scott’s own allegiances are divided since his mother was a band member and he has grown up with the protestors, but as the protegé of the scientists he can also see the value of their work. Mike wants simply to over-ride the protest, but Anna is anxious to find a compromise.

Much of the story turns on patterns of things not easily seen – the traces in the shale which may indicate the presence of the pterosaur, the patterns of deterioration and the gene markers which may demonstrate that Anna has the disease: patterns of small things which once discerned, point to a larger whole. There are, too, patterns of family history, and the patterns of conflict played out between First Nations and colonisers, and even, at a mundane level, between men and women. A crucial theme is of the integral nature of the land, its inhabitants and its stories – to local band members, the removal of the fossil to a distant museum is a rape not only of the land but also of their culture: “Museums are where they put the remains of what has been overrun,” says one of them. The pterosaur is a bird ancestor, and part of the land. This theme is one that has had to be addressed in Canada, where Indigenous Peoples now form part of the consultation process for museum curation and it is familiar to see notices on exhibits to the effect that all or part of the display is unavailable because it is in use. The removal of human remains is even more contentious, of course, and there has been another case in the news recently of remains being returned to their place of origin for burial.

The Find is a thoughtful book, handling its difficult issues with tact and sensitivity. I felt that it was perhaps a little overlong – the period after the dig becomes somewhat episodic, and I thought might have benefited from some more judicious editing, but the chapters covering the excavation itself were really gripping. A book more about ideas than events, with sympathetic characterisation which uses two difficult issues to illuminate each other.

This was a read for the Canadian Book Challenge.

Thursday, 3 June 2010

Best laid plans...

I am visiting the APs, and had planned this week to indulgently read lots of other people's blogs, write a number of posts, and vaguely keep up to date on Twitter, only to find that my broadband connection (via one of those dongles) is so achingly slow that I can't bear it. So I shall prepare some posts offline, and normal service will be resumed as soon as possible.

Yesterday afternoon was spent visiting the gardens at Lukesland, full of spectacular rhododendrons and azaleas, so there will be what the Beechgrove Garden (a Scottish television programme) team always used to describe as "a lovely show of colour" here shortly.