Death in Venice: The Aspern Papers

Henry James, The Aspern Papers (1888)

Henry James and I have not gotten along in the past. When I was compelled to read The Turn of the Screw in school, I was completely befuddled. Then I heard from other readers that James’s writing was convoluted or impenetrable, and I wasn’t interested in trying to break through that tangle.

But I’ve been nagged by the need to give him another chance, and a novella seemed the best way to do so without a huge time commitment. The Aspern Papers is only 86 pages long, so how painful could it be?

Actually, not painful at all. This sample of the Master’s writing, at least, is quite lucid. Written in the first person, it tells the story of a man who is in pursuit of papers left behind by the poet he idolizes and studies, Jeffrey Aspern. He tracks them to Venice, to the house of the great man’s former mistress, now an impoverished old woman who lives alone with her niece. Under an assumed name (we never learn his real one), he becomes a lodger in the house and awaits his opportunity to worm out some information about the precious documents. However, complications arise through his growing intimacy with the isolated, attention-starved niece.

With echoes of Rappaccini’s Daughter and Sunset Boulevard, this subtle and quietly chilling character study explores how people can manipulate and hurt one another in manifold ways, not through evil intentions, but through thoughtlessness, ambition, pride, or unresolved suffering. None of the characters is sympathetic, but none can be seen as entirely damnable. The tension builds up gradually to a shocking conclusion worthy of a horror movie, while the setting of the crumbling, aged city with its ineffable beauty complements the human drama perfectly.

The Aspern Papers novella is based on a true story about the poet Shelley (see this post at Behold the Stars for more on that) but it’s not necessary to know that to enjoy it. I can’t say that I found this an entirely congenial read — it was too bleak — but I did find it haunting and well-crafted. Now I’d like to try one of James’s longer works, since the ice has been broken. Any suggestions?

Classics Club list #12
Back to the Classics Challenge: Classic Novella
Victorian Celebration 2015



A Visit to Barsetshire: The Brandons

Angela Thirkell, The Brandons (1939)

Angela Thirkell Barsetshire

After reading Anthony Trollope’s Barchester Towers, I was curious to read some of the novels that Angela Thirkell set in the same (imaginary) county of Barsetshire. Starting in 1933 and extending through World War II and into the 1950s, she chronicled the lives and loves of several interlinked circles of characters in provincial England. I wondered how these much-loved comedies would compare to Trollope’s acerbic satire, which I appreciated but couldn’t fully warm to.

Strangely, my library only had one of the multitudinous books in the series, The Brandons, so it was there that I began. In this early, pre-war novel (though published in 1939, it contains not a hint of Hitler), the rich and cantankerous Miss Brandon’s last bequest brings excitement and some surprises into the placid life of a Barsetshire village. Meanwhile, the lovely widow Mrs. Brandon continues to inadvertently attract the adoration of men of various ages, and becomes interested in the plight of her elderly relative’s poor companion, who is harboring a romantic secret of her own. Eventually everybody ends up with the right person, in a spirit somewhat reminiscent of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with Mrs. Brandon as a gracious and happily Oberon-less Titania ruling over them all.

I was interested to note how Thirkell explored some Trollopean themes and characters in a decidedly lighter manner. Instead of the inheritance causing greed to pit family and friends against one another, the Brandons honestly don’t care what, if anything, they inherit, and an outsider coming into money actually pleases them. An expatriate Englishwoman who spouts Italian phrases and rhapsodizes about “her” Calabrian peasants comes across as ridiculous, but in an amusing rather than a repulsive way. A clerical quarrel between “high” and “low” churchmen has caused grief in the past, but peace is restored by an act of forgiveness.

Thus, though The Brandons doesn’t carry the weight of social criticism that Barchester Towers does, it goes down more pleasantly, like a refreshing sorbet after a heavy stew. Though it’s light, it’s not fluffy. Thirkell shows great skill in how she handles her characters and narrative, as when Mrs. Brandon listens — or rather, doesn’t listen — to her scholarly admirer reading her his manuscript on John Donne, a scene that reminded me of the best of P. G. Wodehouse. Full of witty phrases and sly allusions, Thirkell’s writing bubbles with the comedy of life. We laugh at her characters, but we love to be with them; “charming” is a more accurate description than usual with that over-used adjective.

And so, charmed by Angela Thirkell’s version of Barsetshire, I’ll surely be back, and I’ll be reading more Trollope too. These two very different writers balance and complement each other to create a marvelously full picture of an imaginary place.

Classics Club List #45


In the Kingdom of Ice (Nonfiction November Review)

Hampton Sides, In the Kingdom of Ice (2014)


For my third and final Nonfiction November title (following One Summer: America 1927 and Empty Mansions), I thought it would be interesting to delve into American history once more. This time, upon recommendations by many including Books on the Table, I chose In the Kingdom of Ice, the story of an ill-starred polar expedition that set out to attempt to break through what was thought to be a ring of ice into a temperate, or even tropical “Open Polar Sea” — an idea that was firmly fixed in the nineteenth-century imagination, but had absolutely no basis in reality, as the expedition fatefully discovered.

When I got the book from the library and found 500 pages of densely-packed text, I was a bit daunted. But once I began reading, the pages flew by. The story was so compelling, and the writing so vivid, that I felt like I was there alongside the crew as they battled incredible odds to try to win their way back to civilization.  I was full of admiration for the brave, determined captain George De Long, who vowed “no man shall be left alone” through their terrible ordeal. Many of his comrades also showed amazing endurance and selflessness, while a few displayed a more unsavory side of humanity as they slid toward madness, melancholia, or just plain irritating everyone to death.

The land-bound characters were equally memorable, including the eccentric newspaper magnate who funded the voyage; De Long’s long-suffering wife, whose heartbreakingly poignant letters to her missing husband punctuate the text; and the brilliant but unbalanced armchair geographer whose misguided notions set the whole tragedy in motion.

The enormous amount of research that must have gone into this book is gracefully and even elegantly transformed into a seamless narrative. Quotations from journals and letters are integrated into the text, contributing to the “you are there” quality. The Arctic landscape comes to life in all its grandeur and horror, as the men move through its terrain and encounter its wildlife and people. There is much information to be gleaned, about post-Civil War American society and the scientific culture of the time in general as well as about polar exploration in particular, yet the reader never feels overwhelmed by scholarship or barraged by facts.

In short, In the Kingdom of Ice is a splendidly thrilling, moving, and thought-provoking journey of adventure, both outer and inner. I’m so glad to have discovered it.

Be sure to check out all the great posts being linked this month for Nonfiction November:

Week One: My Year in Nonfiction
Week Two: Be/Become/Ask the Expert
Week Three: Diversity and Nonfiction
Week Four: New to My TBR List


One Summer: America 1927 (Nonfiction November Review)

Bill Bryson, One Summer: America 1927 (2013)

America 1927 history

A historical timeline entry for May-October, 1927 might read something like this:

  • Floods devastate the Mississippi valley
  • Charles Lindbergh makes first solo flight across the Atlantic
  • Sacco and Vanzetti executed
  • Calvin Coolidge declines to run for another term as president
  • The Jazz Singer filmed
  • Babe Ruth hits a record sixty home runs in a season

Ho, hum. . . does this list take you back to the droning of your tenth-grade history teacher? In Bryson’s latest work of nonfiction, he tries not to numb us with facts but to illumine what it was like to be an American in the summer of 1927, midway between two world wars, enjoying unprecedented prosperity and on the brink of the Great Depression. The summer’s events are taken as a starting point for a narrative that ranges forward and backward in time, exploring everything from the development of aviation to the rise and fall of Prohibition to the tribulations of the motion-picture industry. In the process we meet a staggering array of athletes, criminals, actors, politicians, explorers, writers, anarchists, scientists, entrepreneurs, and inventors, with their idiosyncrasies played up to the fullest extent.

Bryson’s style here is somewhat more subdued than in the writings that made him popular (such as A Walk in the Woods, reviewed here), in which he writes of his own life and travels in such an engaging and humorous way. Since Bryson was unfortunately unable to time-travel back to 1927, his writing takes on a more distant quality, but still has wonderful touches of sly commentary, as in this passage about the anti-Catholic activities of the Ku Klux Klan:

Many in the state [of Indiana] believed that Catholics had poisoned President Harding and that priests at Notre Dame University in South Bend were stockpiling armaments in preparation for a Catholic uprising. In 1923 the most surreally improbably rumor of all emerged — that the pope planned to move his base of operations from the Vatican City to Indiana.

According to several accounts, when residents of the town of North Manchester heard that the pope was on a particular train, 1500 of them boarded it with a view to seizing the pontiff and breaking up his conspiracy. Finding no one recognizably papal, the mob turned its attentions to a traveling corset salesman, who was nearly dragged off to an unhappy fate until he managed to convince his tormentors that it was unlikely that he would try to stage a coup armed with nothing but a case of reinforced undergarments.

plane pilot Lindbergh
Charles Lindbergh

There’s an impressive number of narrative threads to keep track of here, and in general I found the hopping about between time periods and topics to give a pleasantly lively effect. This works best at the beginning when Lindbergh’s flight (and the accompanying antics of his rivals) acts as an anchor for the story. Toward the end, though, the book starts to unravel with too many short, undeveloped episodes: the origins of television; the birth of the modern musical theatre; the unfortunate rise of eugenics (which brings us back to Lindbergh again). . . the events of a single summer truly can’t be separated out neatly, but tie into everything else that comes before and after, and that gets complicated. Where does one stop? The final chapter of the book proper ends on a somewhat feeble note with a mere listing of the key events, as if attempting to regain control of the proliferating historical themes by reducing them to manageable facts again — an understandable, if somewhat disappointing impulse.

It’s possible to get all snooty about works of popular history such as this and sneer at them as intellectually inferior.* It’s true that there are some infelicities of language in One Summer, with certain words seemingly not clearly understood, and an overuse of the term “literally.” The invariable use of the word “America” when referring to the United States, as in “America went to war with Germany,” also betrays a certain imprecision. If I were writing an academic paper or delivering a speech at a historical society I would not be using Bryson as my primary reference. But I was grateful to him for breaking through some of my historical blind spots, and giving me a summer full of characters and events as colorful, absurd, and eccentric as any in fiction. Unlike my tenth-grade history lessons, I won’t soon forget them.

*As did an incredibly vitriolic review in the Washington Post, which I won’t dignify with a link (but you’ll find it easily if you look).


A Traveller in Time: Hild

Nicola Griffith, Hild (2013)


Hilda historical Whitby fiction

Hild is not a novel for everyone. If you are put off by the thought of a dense, slow-moving narrative largely preoccupied with political machinations in a remote period of British history, populated by a large cast of characters whose every other name seems to begin with Os- or Aeth- or Ed-, you might want to look elsewhere. But readers for whom this sounds like an intriguing challenge rather than a form of literary torture will be rewarded by a rich and immersive experience of that alien land, the past, and by the chance to encounter an unforgettable central character.

Who is Hild? She is based on a real person, the daughter of a displaced king in seventh-century Northumbria. She became known to history as Saint Hilda, founder of the important abbey of Whitby, a teacher of bishops and advisor of kings. In nearly 600 pages, the novel only deals with her early years, bringing her just over the threshold of womanhood. Only a few fragments of fact-cum-legend remain about this period of Hild’s life, tiny seeds that in Griffith’s imagination have blossomed into a comprehensive vision of an extraordinary girl growing up in a dangerous and revolutionary time, when petty kings fought for territory with ruthless brutality, and a strange new religion became another weapon in their wars.

Though baptized at thirteen as part of the general conversion of her uncle King Edwin’s court, the Hild of the novel sees the Christ as “just a god like any other.” This new god displaces Woden more through political expediency — he has powerful mortal allies in kings, bishops and archbishops, and the pope — than through any kind of inner moral transformation. Two more novels are projected to continue the story, and I am very curious to see how Hild will develop into the woman revered as a crucial figure in the development of Christianity. Will Christ come to mean anything more to her than just the god who happened to come out on top in the religion war?

It’s quite an ambitious task, this attempt to get into the minds of our hybrid pagan-Christian ancestors, and while she may make some missteps Griffith largely convinces us through the sheer vitality and piercing precision of her language. Passages of lyrical beauty bring the natural and sensual world to life, making us feel that we see through Hild’s eyes into a world unimaginably different from ours yet strangely familiar. Here’s her response to hearing a new kind of music, brought by one of the Christian deacons with his choir:

The music, when it came with a rush, a gush of voice seeking its note, ripped away her indifference and tore through her as sudden and shocking as snowmelt.

She forgot the floor. Forgot the queen. She felt hot, then cold, then nothing at all, like a bubble rising through water, then floating, then lifting free.

It was cool music, inhuman, the song stars might sing. Endless, pouring, pure. Were it water, it would turn any bird who drank it white.

The music soared. Hild soared with it.

In a wonderful article in Issue 2 of Shiny New Books, Nicola Griffith wrote, “For me a good novel is one that draws me in and puts me right there, right then, with the characters: I walk where they walk, feel what they feel. I live their lives, just for a little while, and come back increased.” I certainly feel increased by having had the opportunity to live with and through Hild for a time, and I can’t wait to walk with her again.

For those who just can’t get enough of Hild’s world, Nicola Griffith blogs about her research and associated matters here.


My First Robertson Davies: Tempest-Tost

Robertson Davies, Tempest-Tost (1951)

The first book you read by a favorite author has a special quality. Even if there are other books by the same author that you realize are more worthy of recognition, the joy of discovery lends your “first” a lingering glow. Sometimes, the particular circumstances of finding the book are stamped on the memory as well. I’m revisiting some of these “first reads” and giving some second (or fifth or twentieth) impressions.

Robertson Davies first novel

When I was in college, my campus bookstore had a tempting array of current fiction on the way to the textbooks. Among these were several strikingly designed Penguin paperbacks by an author named Robertson Davies. After looking at them for years I finally bought one: Davies’s first novel, Tempest-Tost, about an amateur production of Shakespeare’s play in a provincial Canadian town.

And how glad I was that I did! With a sure comic touch, Davies assembles his cast of characters and lets them make fools of themselves, occasionally learning something in the process, in the best Shakespearean tradition. The pompous English professor who simply must play Prospero with his own special touch; the drama club president, preoccupied with impressing her social superiors; the suddenly stage-struck mathematics teacher whose staid and comfortable life is shaken up by his venture into theatrical circles; the gloriously unconventional church organist with a passion for Henry Purcell; the young assistant director bound by painful ties to his invalid mother; all these and more entertain and divert us with their own comedy alongside the one they are preparing for the stage.

In this early work, Davies sometimes lets the seams of his novelistic construction show. He can’t resist including some incidents and bits of dialogue that don’t quite fit — as when he puts one of his favorite sayings (“chastity means having the body in the soul’s keeping”) in the unlikely mouth of the ingenue Griselda, or shoehorns in a scene that shows off his knowledge of the value of some forgotten old books. An actor, director, and playwright himself, Davies is somewhat given to staginess and long passages of dialogue that seem out of place in this brief work of fiction.

Robertson Davies trilogy novels

All of these rough spots would be smoothed out in future novels, where Davies really came into his own as a fiction writer. The comic sense and eccentric characters, as well the evidence of his formidable learning and eclectic interests, remain — but his storytelling becomes more accomplished and compelling, resulting in a most satisfying reading experience. For a sample of his narrative power at its height, I recommend Fifth Business (first of the Deptford Trilogy, about the surprisingly interwoven destinies of three boys from a small Canadian town); my personal favorite, What’s Bred in the Bone (a wonderful exploration of the art world, among other things); or his final novel, The Cunning Man (conceived as the memoir of a physician who was “holistic” before it was trendy).

Rereading Tempest-Tost just now after an interval of many years, I was struck by the opening scene — a motherless young girl, living in a large estate, with a faithful ex-military family retainer and a lovely older sister she describes as “brainless,” engaged in a somewhat shady activity. The activity is wine-making instead of concocting poisons, and the girl’s family is still comfortably wealthy instead of living on the edge of insolvency, but is this set-up not reminiscent of that of the Flavia de Luce mysteries? The two girls even both have unusual names that start with F (here, Fredegonde).

In another somewhat awkward move, Davies abandons Freddy after the opening chapter and his story goes into quite a different direction — but still, it made me wonder whether fellow Canadian author Alan Bradley was consciously or unconsciously inspired by this scene. It would not be a bad thing for more writers to read and be inspired by Davies’s example of intelligent, emotionally resonant fiction, or for more readers to discover its pleasures.

Robertson Davies Booker shortlistDavies never won the Booker Prize, though he was shortlisted for What’s Bred in the Bone  in 1986. At the time surprise was expressed in the UK at the presence of two Canadians on the list, the other being Margaret Atwood for The Handmaid’s Tale. Davies said dryly, “The English are just a little late in discovering what the rest of the world has known for some time.” (Alas, both lost to third-time nominee Kingsley Amis.)

We’re in a different world now, where Canadian authors like Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, Carol Shields, and Bradley himself garner wide readership and honors, but Davies was their forerunner, and deserves all the recognition we can posthumously give him. Whichever book you start with, I hope you’ll agree.


Lost in Translation: Le Grand Meaulnes

Alain-Fournier, Le Grand Meaulnes (1913)


Alain-Fournier French novel

It’s been a while since I read a novel in translation. As I read Le Grand Meaulnes, one of the most acclaimed and popular novels that came out of the past century in France, I pondered the various aspects of the writer’s art, and how they can or cannot be translated from one tongue into another. There’s the basic plot and character framework, the general raw materials of fiction; this element, I think, can be translated, because it can be understood independent of the language used. Then there’s how these materials are worked with: how the plot is structured, how the narration works, what kinds of images are chosen, how description is balanced with plot development. This also can be translated to a certain extent.

But the third element, the actual sound-sculpture of the language, which gives color and emotional resonance to the story, is not translatable. A translator may come up with a new creation that has some parallel relationship with the original, hoping to evoke similar feelings and experiences through the second language, but they cannot ever be truly the same, because they live in a realm beyond intellectual meaning. The need to convey meaning on the first two levels hampers the translator, because it limits him or her in the words that can be chosen, and the ones that are available inevitably color the translated work in a new way. Perhaps the most honest approach would be to discard the original work altogether and try to create a new one, new in plot, structure, and diction, that approaches the essence of the original. But this is not what we call translation.

Given these limitations, how do we appreciate a novel that we are reading in a language not its own? I felt I could only judge Le Grand Meaulnes for its basic ideas and structure, which are no more than its bones, and that I was missing the most vital, intangible element, its animating spark of life. The result was a rather frustrating experience, like trying to see a scene of magical beauty through a thick distorting glass.

To summarize the “bones”: A young man, the Meaulnes of the title, wanders by accident into a mysterious domain where costumed revelers, many of them children, are preparing for the son of the house to return with his bride. Their celebration is abruptly ended without the expected wedding, but not before Meaulnes has met and fallen in love with the daughter of the house. He returns to school without knowing where the domain is, and spends the next months and years trying to find it and his lost love; he also becomes involved in the affairs of the other unhappy couple, which tragically intersect with his own.

All of this is narrated not by Augustin Meaulnes himself, but by a younger boy who was enchanted by “le grand Meaulnes” when he entered the country school run by his father. As he tells the story sometimes in his own voice, sometimes by piecing together his friend’s journals, letters, or narratives, he stands as the reader’s surrogate, trying to comprehend events that he cannot fully participate in, and make a whole out of fragments of experience.

The translation I read was by Frank Davison; a more recent one by Robin Buss exists, but I didn’t have access to it in full. I found a couple of examples, however, which provided some instructive contrasts. The Davison translation struck me as rather stiff and formal; the Buss translation appears to dispense with some of the elaborate language but in the process becomes more pedestrian and everyday. Which of these is more true to the French original I have no way of knowing, but I suspect that they are two different attempts at solving an impossible problem.

The advent of Augustin Meaulnes, coinciding as it did with my recovery from the ailment, marked the beginning of a new life. (Davison

The arrival of Augustin Meaulnes, coinciding with my being cured of the disability, was the start of a new life. (Buss translation)

* * *

Meaulnes was in haste to find someone to give him a lift, in haste to be off. He had now a deep-seated dread of being left alone in the domain and shown up for a fraud. (Davison translation)

He was in a hurry to leave. Deep inside him, he was worried that he might find himself alone on the estate and his deception be revealed. (Buss translation)

I confess to not finding either of these treatments very artistically satisfying. With more evocative language, I might have been more easily captivated by the story of Meaulnes and his strange, restless journeying; as it was, I often felt a bit baffled. It was hard for me to become interested in the romantic yearning of Meaulnes and Yvonne, who exchange fewer than a dozen sentences from the time they meet to the time they marry, and the complicated mystification which parts them in the last section seemed to me unnecessary, when with some logic and patience the problem could be solved without all the agony. It’s all very French, I suppose — which is why if it were in French it might make more sense.

It seemed to me as I read that a cinematic “translation” might actually be more appropriate. (At least two films have been made of the novel, that I know of, though I have not seen either of them.) The heart-stopping beauty of the landscape, the relationships forged more through glance and gesture than through speech, the dreamlike nature of the lost domain and of the quest to find it again, all seem good candidates for a visual treatment. If the author had been born a bit later, or had not been killed so young in the First World War, he might even have found an artistic affinity to film-making himself.

On the other hand, at times the emotional fervor of the author breaks through the clumsiness of the English words, and one can catch a glimpse of what has become lost in translation.

She was asleep, so still and silent that she seemed not to be breathing. He thought: that’s how birds must sleep. For some time he stood looking at her sleeping, childlike face, so perfectly tranquil that it seemed a pity it should ever be disturbed. 

 * * *

At each step, with this burden on my breast, I find it more difficult to breathe. Holding close the inert, heavy body, I bend over her head and take a deep breath, drawing into my mouth some strands of golden hair; dead hair that has a taste of earth. This taste of earth and of death, and this weight on my heart, is all that is left to me of the great adventure …

“But how can a man who has once strayed into heaven ever hope to make terms with the earth?” Meaulnes cries at one point. Le Grand Meaulnes is an attempt to express something almost inexpressible, to give us a picture of the deepest longings of the human heart. Even though translation may dim its full radiance, its scenes and images still resonate.

It has been suggested that The Great Gatsby owes something of its genesis to Le Grand Meaulnes, with its parallel, pitch-perfect title construction (the French could not be literally translated without sounding like “The Great Moan”) and the use of a passive narrator on the sidelines of a great love story. Perhaps this is an instance of what I mentioned at the beginning, a “translation” that takes some of the essence of a work but re-creates it anew for a new language, culture, and sensibility. There’s no direct evidence of this — no record of Fitzgerald having read or spoke of Alain-Fournier — but now that I’ve met Meaulnes, I’ll be very interested to take another look at Gatsby.

Classics Club List #39
An appreciation by David Mitchell


My First Diana Wynne Jones: Charmed Life

Diana Wynne Jones, Charmed Life (Greenwillow, 1977)

The first book you read by a favorite author has a special quality. Even if there are other books by the same author that you realize are more worthy of recognition, the joy of discovery lends your “first” a lingering glow. Sometimes, the particular circumstances of finding the book are stamped on the memory as well. I’m revisiting some of these “first reads” and giving some second (or fifth or twentieth) impressions.

Diana Wynne Jones Chrestomanci
The first DWJ I ever purchased

I first encountered the name of Diana Wynne Jones when at age fourteen I wrote a letter to my favorite author at the time, Robin McKinley, and received this response. I had asked her to tell me her favorite book and not to answer War and Peace (I guess I was fed up with high school required reading lists). She gave quite an extensive list of books and authors, all of which I duly checked out.

Charmed Life was the first DWJ title I found in my local bookstore, and I purchased it forthwith. Here is the first paragraph:

Cat Chant admired his sister Gwendolen. She was a witch. He admired her and he clung to her. Great changes came about in their lives and left him no one else to cling to.

Four simple, almost simplistic sentences, but as we progress further into the story we find out that there are many layers beneath the surface. The bland statement “She was a witch” turns out to have quite a different significance in Cat and Gwendolen’s world than in ours, as witchcraft is an ordinary occupation, like hairdressing or teaching music. And Cat’s admiration of and dependence on his older sister, which seem entirely natural considering that the “great changes” in their lives include the sudden death of their parents in a boating accident, turn out to be problematic. For magic may be common in Cat’s world, but it’s not always innocuous, and Gwendolen is not using her powers to benefit her young brother, but rather the opposite.

Diana Wynne Jones novel
The latest British edition

These two threads — the building of an alternate world in which magic is a part of daily life, and the theme of a young person’s need to discover his own strengths and free himself from unhelpful bonds — make a marvelous blend, a tale that is wonderfully fanciful, entertaining, and imaginative, yet grounded in serious concerns of the human heart. And the deadpan style masks a wickedly perceptive sense of humor. As I read more of Jones’s work, I found this blend in book after book, always with new twists and new worlds to explore, and always with the same sense of humor rooted not in cheap laughs but in a rare kind of wisdom.

Maybe that’s why of the authors Robin McKinley recommended, Diana Wynne Jones is the only one who became a favorite of mine, far eclipsing McKinley herself in the end. She is a writer of comedy in the true sense: a way of looking at life that, while it sees what is absurd and out of place with clear eyes, also uplifts us with the knowledge of what is noble and enduring in the human spirit. While it might seem presumptuous to compare her to the greatest writer of comedies in English, Shakespeare, in her chosen realm of children’s fantasy novels, she’s not so far from the top. She has her flaws and weak points, but at her height of creative invention, I don’t know anyone who compares to her.

While you may see Charmed Life publicized as part of the “Chrestomanci series” (along with The Magicians of Caprona, Witch Week, The Lives of Christopher Chant, Conrad’s Fate, and The Pinhoe Egg), it is not a series in the conventional sense and the order of reading is not terribly important. Charmed Life is a good place to start, though, because in it Jones introduces the character of Chrestomanci — a role rather than a name, an enchanter powerful enough to ensure that lesser magic-workers follow the rules in his world; it also introduces the important idea of “related worlds,” alternate realities that have split off when an event in history could have taken different paths. I’m not going to go into the plot more than that, because I want you to discover its surprises for yourself; and if I haven’t managed to intrigue you by now, I give up.

Five weeks from today, I’ll be hosting a celebration of Diana Wynne Jones and a read-along of another Chrestomanci book, Witch Week, from October 31 to November 6, 2014. Although Charmed Life is not one of the official featured books of that week, if you’re thinking of joining us, you might want to check it out if you haven’t already. It was where I began, and I still think it’s a good place to start. From there, you’re going to find many magical worlds to explore.

Review copy source: Personal collection

Darkness in Delphi: My Brother Michael

Mary Stewart, My Brother Michael (1960)

Mary Stewart is rightly acclaimed for creating wonderfully robust settings in her books, which serve as much more than mere stage backdrops to the action. So strong is the sense of place, sometimes, that the setting almost becomes a character or a plot device in its own right.

Such is the case with My Brother Michael, which I picked up in honor of Mary Stewart Reading Week. The place is Delphi, on the slopes of Mount Parnassus in Greece, once considered the navel of the world and still one of the most numinous sites of the Western world. While telling one of her thrilling tales of mystery and danger, Stewart also manages to evoke the spirit of Greece, both ancient and modern, in a strikingly vivid way. From a memorable scene of the difficulties of passing a bus on a mountain road, to explorations of the god-haunted landscape of Parnassus, to stories of some of the tragedies incurred during and after the Second World War, she makes us feel that we have encountered this brilliant, desolate land, and experienced some of its treasures — and its burdens.

I said, “It’s this confounded country. It does things to one — mentally and physically and, I suppose, morally. The past is so living and the present so intense and the future so blooming imminent. The light seems to burn life into you twice as intensely as anywhere else I’ve known. I suppose that’s why the Greeks did what they did so miraculously, and why they could stay themselves through twenty generations of slavery that would have crushed any other race on earth.”

To summarize the plot of a Mary Stewart novel is to spoil many of its surprises, so I’ll just say that our heroine, Camilla, traveling alone in Greece after the breakup of a bad relationship, gets into more than she’d bargained for when she takes an unusual opportunity to transport herself from Athens to Delphi. After she meets up with our hero, an Englishman hunting for some clues to still-unanswered questions around the death of his brother during the war, she definitely loses her right to complain that “Nothing ever happens to me.” One is reminded to be careful what one wishes for — the gods may be listening.

One quibble I had with the narrative was that Camilla is supposed not to understand Greek, yet she reports in great detail conversations that were held in that language, with every nuance of emotion and expression included. This is supposed to be because they were translated for her afterwards, but that explanation is not terribly convincing; indeed, she often is more engaged with what is going on than she should be, were she really as ignorant as she is supposed to be. There is one major plot point that turns on her lack of understanding of the language, but perhaps that could have been dealt with in another way. I know that highly detailed first-person narratives generally require some suspension of disbelief, but this extra bit of implausibility bothered me just slightly.

As in another Stewart novel with a Greek setting, The Moon-Spinners, the romance in My Brother Michael was more implied than explicit. I tend to like them that way, since instant attraction seems more plausible to me than instant falling-into-arms and declaring undying love. (There is never much time in these novels for anything other than instantaneous romance, since the action moves at a pretty fast clip, and most of the time our hero and heroine are busy with pursuing bad guys and other distractions.) Here, aside from a charming teaser at the end, much is left to our imaginations. Sometimes it’s better that way.

Overall, this was one of my favorite Mary Stewart books so far, with its seamless integration of plot, setting and character, and one that I would definitely pick up again. If you’re looking for an intelligent, entertaining and suspenseful read, this is a good place to start.



Suspense with Style: Four by Mary Stewart

Mary Stewart, Nine Coaches Waiting (Morrow, 1959)

Mary Stewart, The Ivy Tree (Morrow, 1962)

Mary Stewart, The Moon-Spinners (Morrow, 1963)

Mary Stewart, This Rough Magic (Morrow, 1964) 


Mary Stewart romantic suspense

It’s always a great pleasure to discover an author whose books have somehow passed you by, especially if there are plenty of them. Such is the case with Mary Stewart, whose romantic suspense novels just never swam into my ken until now.

Fortunately, good books never go out of date. This summer I read four Stewarts in quick succession and found them effortlessly readable yet refreshingly literate. With exotic settings, independent heroines, and tricky plots, they make perfect vacation reading. And in honor of Mary Stewart Reading Week, hosted by Gudrun’s Tights, here are some thoughts that I hope will interest those who haven’t yet discovered this wonderful author, as well as those who know and love her.

Each of these four books starts with a young woman, usually alone, making a journey to some beautiful, rather remote spot (Corfu, Northumberland, Alpine France, Crete) where she expects to settle into a holiday or a new job. She then finds that there is something unsavory going on (smuggling, treason, identity theft, attempted murder, kidnapping) and becomes involved in trying to defeat the villain(s). Serious dangers to life and limb ensue, as she tries to rescue the victim/find the treasure/puzzle out the crime, but naturally she comes through in the end, with a new love interest with whom she has made a connection in the midst of all the mayhem.

While the novels do follow a certain pattern, they are not formulaic. Each one is written in a distinctive voice and with precise attention to detail, which makes you feel as though you have really been to the places she describes. They also are pleasantly literary: This Rough Magic centers around an old house inhabited by a Shakespearean actor obsessed with The Tempest; Nine Coaches Waiting takes its title and organization from a quotation from The Revengers’ Tragedy; The Ivy Tree is named after an old song and has a strain of ancient folklore running through it. And while they are certainly suspenseful, they are not gratuitously violent or exploitative. Sympathetic characters and intelligently constructed plots appeal to our hearts and minds, as well as our wish to be thrilled and excited. These books create miniature worlds that live in our imaginations after the entertainment has finished, and leave us satisfied rather than empty.

The main quibble I have with Stewart is that I wish she would develop her romances more gradually. There tends to be a “boom” moment of falling in love without much apparent reason behind it, based on an acquaintance of mere days or even hours. I found this element required more suspension of disbelief than did some of the improbable and extreme situations.

Still, I enjoyed so much about her books that this was a minor issue for me. Now, for Mary Stewart Reading Week, I need to pick which novel to read next. I’m thinking of Touch Not the Cat (telepathic romance on an English estate), My Brother Michael (“a mysterious car journey to Delphi in the company of a charming but quietly determined Englishman”), or Airs Above the Ground (Vienna and Lipizzaner horses). Any recommendations?

Review copy source: Print books from library