Friday, March 6, 2015

The Alexiad of Anna Comnena

Before we get on with the review here, I'd like to take a moment to congratulate Emily H, the winner of the Pendragon's Heir ebook giveaway! I'll be sending Emily her advance copy of Pendragon's Heir soon. For those of you who didn't win, the release date of March 26th is only three weeks away! It will be accompanied by much celebration, including a round of features and guest posts with fellow authors and bibliophiles. What fun!

And on to the review!

As regular readers of my blog are no doubt aware, I've lately been doing some reading in Byzantine history. Most recently I read a primary source--that's historian-speak for an account written by someone living during the time period he describes--by Anna Comnena, the eldest daughter of the emperor Alexius I Comnenus, who wrote in the early 1100s.

I first heard of Anna when I read a young-adult novel on holiday at a friend's place, Anna of Byzantium. This fictionalised account of Anna's life depicted her as a haughty and embittered woman, and centered around her plot to assassinate her younger brother John (later known as John the Beautiful, one of the most able and pious of the Byzantine Emperors) at their father's funeral. Needless to say, I came away from that book with a hearty contempt for its heroine. However, I did learn some of the salient features of Anna's life, including the fact that she wrote an important history of her father's life and witnessed the passage of the First Crusaders through Constantinople on their way to the Holy Land.

Consequently, when I decided to research the Crusades in a bit more depth, I was thrilled to pick up a secondhand copy of ERA Sewter's translation of the Alexiad. Deciding to write a novella set in medieval Byzantium, The Prince of Fishes, kicked this primary source a few more notches up my to-read list. The reason for this is that I consider it impossible to write historical fiction without having read at least some primary sources. Without immersing oneself in primary sources (fiction and poetry for preference, but history was all I had at this time), it is impossible to truly grasp the character, mindset, worldview, concerns, philosophies, and general overall mood of a culture. I was unable to give myself a thoroughly good grounding in Byzantine literature, but I had Anna Comnena to hand, and reading the story of her father's reign was an excellent place to start.

The book, which comes structured into fifteen "books" like most ancient histories, begins roughly in 1070 with the boyhood of its hero, Alexius Comnenus, when at fourteen years of age or thereabouts he began his distinguished military career. By the time he rose to the throne, in a coup against the emperor Nicephorus III Botanietes in 1081, the Eastern Empire was still reeling under the disaster of the Turkish victory at the battle of Manzikert in 1071 and the Turks had successfully occupied most of Asia Minor, including the legendary Christian city of Nicaea just across the Marmara from Constantinople. The first challenge facing Alexius when he took the purple, however, came from the west. Roger Guiscard, the Norman king of Sicily, had crossed the Adriatic with the intention of invading and conquering the Empire. He was accompanied by his son Bohemund, an able military commander.

This sets the stage for two struggles which will characterise the rest of Alexius's reign and, indeed, the rest of Byzantine history. After with difficulty repelling two Norman (or "Keltic") and a Pecheneg (or "Scythian") invasions, Alexius turns his attention to the East, where the Turks are pressing into the south-western coasts of Asia Minor, conquering cities with famous names and long Christian histories--Ephesus, Smyrna, Philadelphia. Anna depicts Alexius acting with all the considerable wile and cunning of Roman diplomacy, but does not admit to Alexius's call for help from the West. She does, however, provide an excellent Byzantine perspective on the passage of the First Crusaders through the imperial dominions--the wait at Constantinople, the friendship forged with Raymond of Toulouse ("Isangeles", or Saint-Gilles), of whom it is said that "whatever the circumstances, he honoured truth above all else," and the Roman distrust of Bohemund, who "inherited perjury and guile from his ancestors". With the aid of the "Kelts", Nicaea is regained and Turkish power in Asia Minor is checked, laying a foundation for further victories against the barbarians; but with old enemy Bohemund setting up a principality in Antioch and carving out holdings in Cilicia on the southeastern border of the Empire, the Norman menace continues from a new quarter.

Caught between the unsleeping threat of Turkish expansion in the east, the ambitions of Bohemund in the west and south, and heresies, intrigues, and assassination attempts at home, Alexius Comnenus emerges even from his daughter's fulsome praise as an unusually wily, capable and magnanimous emperor.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Anna writes well, in a style full of vigour and peppered with classical quotations and allusions (especially from Homer, since she saw herself as writing a new Iliad) to show off her no doubt formidable learning. Her battle scenes are particularly enjoyable: she writes with a keen eye for technological and strategic detail, and never omits a chance to include the tales of peril told by the high-born soldiers when they came home from war--the kind of thing I assumed was only ever made up by Hollywood filmmakers to add a bit of romance to ugly fact. Yet, the Alexiad is full of stories like this (which I have edited ruthlessly for length):
Robert then despatched all his fit men in pursuit of Alexius, while he himself stayed there, gloating over the imminent capture of his enemy. His men pursued Alexius with great determination. The situation was as follows: below there flows the River Charzanes; on the other side was a high overhanging rock. The pursuers caught up with him between these two. They struck at him on the left side with their spears and forced him to the right. No doubt he would have fallen, had not the sword which he grasped in his right hand rested firmly on the ground. What is more, the spur tip on his left foot caught in the edge of the saddle-cloth and this made him less liable to fall. He grabbed the horse's mane with his left hand and pulled himself up. It was no doubt some divine power that saved him from his enemies in an unexpected way, for it caused other Kelts to aim their spears at him from the right. Thus the emperor was kept upright between them. It was at this moment that the horse gave proof of its nobility: he suddenly leapt through the air and landed on top of the rock I mentioned before as if he he had been raised on wings. Some of the barbarians' spears, striking at empty air, fell from their hands; others, which had pierced the emperor's clothing, remained there and were carried off with the horse when he jumped. Alexius quickly cut away these trailing weapons and contrary to all expectation escaped from his enemies. The Kelts stood open-mouthed.
On this occasion, Alexius was pursued further by his enemies and killed several of them before finally rejoining his fleeing army. It makes for thrilling reading, the more thrilling because true--unless Alexius, and the dozens of other old soldiers whose stories are recorded in Anna's history, were exaggerating their adventures. But even if they were, this seems to have been the kind of thing that everyone could believe happening in war; the stories must have been believable to their hearers.

I have enjoyed many primary sources, but this book was particularly enjoyable. Anna gives her readers a front-row seat to roughly four decades' worth of adventure, military tactics, palace intrigue, diplomatic skullduggery, assassination attempts, and last-minute reprieves--drama, excitement, and tragedy. It's excellent reading.

Her character sketches are fascinating, but unavoidably coloured by her prejudices. Alexius, the hero of this epic, wears the same halo inside the book as he does in the manuscript picture on its front cover, although I admit that if half of his virtues, as Anna describes them, were real, then he must have been a very great and a very good man. With Alexius's nemesis, Bohemund, and the other "Kelts", or Latin Christians, Anna is grudging in her praise and vindictive in her accusations. I lost it completely when she goes overboard in describing their greed by saying that "they would sell their own grandmothers for a song!" (it apparently not being heinous enough that they would sell them for a reasonable market price); and as for Bohemund, "He was the supreme mischief-maker. As for inconstancy, that follows automatically--a trait common to all Latins."

Irene Ducas, Alexius's wife and Anna's mother, receives an extraordinary amount of praise. Anna does not, of course, tell us whether the empress was implicated in the plot to assassinate Anna's brother John; other sources tell us that both women joined to plead with Alexius on his deathbed to make Anna's husband, Nicephorus Bryennius, emperor instead of John. Perhaps it is out of gratitude for her mother's support that Anna is so fulsome in her praise. But on the other hand, Irene appears to have been a fairly remarkable character in her own right: later in Alexius's life, she would travel about with him on campaign, massaging his feet to relieve the pain of his gout and acting as a kind of bodyguard whose constant vigilance was needed to deter assassination attempts. "She was a brave and resolute woman," says Anna. "Like the famous one praised by Solomon in the Book of Proverbs, she displayed no womanly cowardice."

As for her brother John himself, apart from two or three passing mentions, Anna more or less blackballs him from her history. Nor does she spend much time on the prince to whom she was betrothed as a child, Constantine Ducas (son of a previous emperor and heir presumptive until his early death), nor on "my Caesar", her husband Nicephorus Bryennius, a high-ranking army officer and historian. But they are acknowledged; John, although co-emperor with his father from a reasonably early age, and presumably present on many of Alexius's later campaigns, hardly rates a mention.

Indeed, apart from Alexius, the person of whose character we get the clearest picture in this history is Anna herself. Historians have been tutting for years over Edward Gibbon's contemptuous dismissal of Anna's history as "betraying in every page the vanity of a female author." I yield to none in my dislike of Gibbon, but I think he's on to something here. The picture I get of Anna is of someone snippy, hoity-toity, sourpussish, superior, and deeply, sadly embittered. She hates stiffly, proudly, and passionately; she loves dutifully, even hysterically, but always with an eye to public opinion. She is, above anything else, rather painfully self-conscious, jealous of her reputation as a princess and a historian, perhaps motivated by a desire to vindicate herself, at the end of a disappointed life, as the most dutiful and loving of her famous father's children. Her history finishes with a full-scale emotional meltdown bewailing her father's death in 1118, her mother's death in 1123, and her husband's death in 1137; she says that "the grief caused by these events would have sufficed to wear me out, body and soul, but now, like rivers flowing down from high mountains, the streams of adversity united in one torrent flood my house."

Yet, as the translator remarks dryly in a footnote, "One could hardly regard three such bereavements in the course of some twenty years as a crushing blow."

Generally speaking, however, despite (or perhaps because of) the author's idiosyncracies, the Alexiad of Anna Comnena was an intensely enjoyable read: more human, more immediate, more passionate than any modern-day account. Excellent stuff.

Find The Alexiad on Amazon, The Book Depository, or the Internet History Sourcebook.

Monday, March 2, 2015

History in English Words by Owen Barfield

First things first: Exciting days are upon us, with the release date for Pendragon's Heir coming up on the 26th of this month. The cover reveal party--complete with a giveaway!--is still going on in a previous post; pop over to enter for a chance to win an advance copy of Pendragon's Heir in the e-format of your choice!

And now, on to the review.

With CS Lewis holding a respected and well-deserved position as the patron saint of evangelicalism, and JRR Tolkien's never-higher popularity with the reading public, everyone by now must have heard of the Inklings, the Oxford critique circle of which those two men were the leading lights. The other members of the group included other authors, literary scholars and philologists, names like Charles Williams, Roger Lancelyn Green, and today's author, Owen Barfield.

Barfield did not, to my knowledge, write any classics of Christian fantasy (as a theosophist, he may have been incapable of doing so), but what he did write was a small body of scholarly works that have become classics in their genre. Leland Ryken gives his Poetic Diction a rave review as a foundational work on literary criticism, and ever since a friend gave me History in English Words a few years ago I've been anticipating digging into this philological classic.

The book is divided into two parts. The first is significantly shorter and easier reading. Here, Barfield traces the history of the English language from its first roots as the language of an Indo-European tribal group which he calls (with a footnote disclaiming any relationship to the Nazi ideals) Aryans. Here, for example, we learn that there were four major migrations of Latin-derived words into the English language over the course of history: words picked up when the tribes who would later become English were still living in Europe; words picked up during the Roman occupation of Caesar; words picked up with the influx of Roman missionaries after St Augustine of Kent; and finally words imported during the classical craze of the Renaissance (notably parodied in Shakespeare's Love's Labours Lost).

All this is perfectly fascinating, giving us the histories of a whole slew of common English words from candle to cannibal, but the main meat of the book is in the second part.

Here Barfield returns to the beginning of this history and runs through it all again, this time focusing on what he calls "the Western Outlook" or what we might call the Western worldview (a word that seems to have changed in its meaning even since Barfield's time). This is the part of the book that makes it truly invaluable, since Barfield uses the history of the development of words to track the history of the development of concepts and ideas.

For example, Barfield spends some time discussing the many philosophical Greek concepts which developed in the centuries preceding the Incarnation of Christ. These Greek concepts--words like Logos, mystery, and idol--were then used, sometimes with more and sometimes with less redefinition, by the writers of the New Testament to convey the truth of Christianity. I remember learning at my mother's knee how the Roman roads and koine Greek language of the ancient world were God's providence in preparing the world for the spread of the Gospel. It had not occurred to me that there had also been a philosophical preparatio Evangelica--especially these days when we tend to be skittish of ancient pagan heresies cropping up in our beliefs. And yet what more fitting than that God should arrange for Christendom to spread not just on Roman roads in the Greek lingua franca, but also in the currency of ideas which all Greeks understood?

Barfield then goes on to deal with the effect upon our language of medieval Christendom, and this was even more enlightening. I have often noticed a peculiar quality of grace about Middle English and Early Modern English writings. From Langland to Bunyan, the language of the most ordinary kind of writer seems full of an ineffable tenderness and courtesy. Barfield explains this wonderful quality as intensely theological: words like passion, pity, gentle, mercy, charity, comfort, compassion, courtesy, devotion, grace, honour, humble, patience, peace, purity, and tender are all words that come down to us from this time, many of them beginning as theological terms; some coming directly into the vocabulary with Bible translations, such as lovingkindness and tender mercy from Coverdale, or long-suffering, mercifulness, peacemaker, and beautiful from Tyndale. At the same time it became possible to see a woman no longer as a hlaf-dig, a loaf-kneader, but as a lady: Christian reverence for Mary the Mother (however misguided it may later have become) and for Christ the Infant made it possible for the first time in recorded history for a culture to celebrate womanhood and childhood as precious things, to feel tender towards them, and to celebrate them in literature.

After two thousand years of Christendom, it is close to impossible for us to fathom just how cold and dark the pagan world was.

By contrast, the advent of modernism saw a perhaps inevitable growth of mechanistic terms and a whole new vocabulary that experienced Nature as a machine. The idea of the pump taught us how to think of our hearts, and the idea of the telegraph taught us how to think of our nervous systems. At the same time--I become sketchier here because Barfield was at this point tying my brain in knots--there appears to have been a radical process of individualisation in thoughts and concepts, alien to the more community-based life of the medievals and ancients.

I am going to have to re-read this book two or three times, I think, before I've fully grasped the ins and outs of everything Barfield has to say. While I don't agree with him on everything, and I expect to disagree with him more as my knowledge in this area grows, the fact remains that this book is a truly remarkable and valuable study of Western worldviews across history as evidenced by the English language. Eagerly recommended.

Find History in English Words on Amazon or The Book Depository.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Pendragon's Heir: Cover Reveal and Making Of

Today I'm thrilled to present the cover of my upcoming epic Arthurian fantasy novel, Pendragon's Heir.


by Suzannah Rowntree 
Blanche Pendragon enjoys her undemanding life as the ward of an eccentric nobleman in 1900 England. It's been years since she even wondered what happened to her long lost parents, but then a gift on the night of her eighteenth birthday reveals a heritage more awe-inspiring and more dangerous than she ever dreamed of--or wanted. Soon Blanche is flung into a world of wayfaring immortals, daring knights, and deadly combats, with a murderous witch-queen on her trail and the future of a kingdom at stake. As the legendary King Arthur Pendragon and his warriors face enemies without and treachery within, Blanche discovers a secret that could destroy the whole realm of Logres. Even if the kingdom could be saved, is she the one to do it? Or is someone else the Pendragon's Heir?
I'm also thrilled to announce a giveaway! To win an advance copy of Pendragon's Heir in the e-format of your choice, enter below:

a Rafflecopter giveaway

So, some background on the cover: I started off making this myself, and after many tweaks, came up with a design I liked.

Except that out of nowhere, I got an email from a friend and designer with an impressive portfolio, who wanted to paint something in the style of Howard Pyle and NC Wyeth, and wondered if I'd like him to make me a cover. Just as I was certain I'd finished the job myself, I suddenly had professional help. Unsure what to do, I showed him my cover. He agreed it was a good concept, and offered to make some tweaks (I'll discuss them in more depth in a minute). But the best part? Because he didn't get to paint me a cover, Isaac offered instead to draw three black-and-white illustrations for inside the book! COO ER GOSH, Y'ALL.


I'd like to thank Isaac Botkin for all his kind help--not just with the cover and illustrations, but also with drop caps for the interior and various other aspects of the design. It's been a privilege to work with him, and thoroughly encouraging to have his support with this project.

The Pendragon's Heir cover design process was quite a long one, and I'm going to walk you through it, because while writing a novel is usually mind-numbing hard work, cover design is actually pretty fun.

More under the cut!

Friday, February 20, 2015

Guest Post: The Stratemeyer Syndicate: How One Organization Shaped 20th Century Children's Literature

Hello Vintage Novels readers! This week I'm pleased to present guest poster Bessie Blue of Vintage Book Life with an article on the fascinating--and for a long time, top-secret--Stratemeyer Syndicate. Having enjoyed the odd Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys book in my younger days, it's a real pleasure to host Bessie Blue with some background details.



If you read Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, or the Bobbsey Twins as a child—or as an adult—you may be vaguely aware that these series were penned by ghostwriters. But the truth is much more intriguing.

These series, and more than one hundred others, were created by a secretive organization called the Stratemeyer Syndicate. Founded by Edward Stratemeyer at the turn of the 20th century, the Syndicate was neither a book publishing nor a packaging firm as it was sometimes referred to. It was instead the brains behind the thousands of children's books that would become the most-read kids' novels of the twentieth century. In fact, more than five million copies of Stratemeyer novels were sold between 1899 and 1926.

In the Victorian Era, children's books were frequently imbued with moral values. An example of this is the still-popular novel “What Katy Did” by Susan Coolidge. It features a tomboyish girl who learns to be a woman after becoming temporarily handicapped.

Edward Stratemeyer realized there was a big market for children's books without moral lessons. His first try at filling this demand was with The Rover Boys, in 1899. The series was incredibly popular, and in 1906, the Stratemeyer Syndicate was formed. But Stratemeyer also discovered that he sold better under a pseudonym, and he began to write his Rover Boy books under the pen name 'Arthur M. Winfield.' He also branched out into other series such as The Bobbsey Twins and Tom Swift, using other names like Laura Lee Hope and Victor Appleton, respectively, and teaming up with other publishers. His theory was that since readers believed they were buying different series written by different authors and published by different firms, he could produce more without overloading the market.

However, Stratemeyer soon found he could not continue alone to juggle the writing of so many series to fulfill readers' demand. At this point, he began to hire ghostwriters. Hundreds of men and women soon began working on outlines that Stratemeyer—and his two daughters, Harriet and Edna—were writing. They were each payed a fixed sum that equalled about three months' of a newspaper journalist's wages. Meanwhile, Stratemeyer earned the massive ongoing royalties from each novel.

While Stratemeyer published different series in different firms—such as Grosset and Dunlap and Cupples and Leon—he also promoted reader loyalty by using pen names throughout decades-long series (for instance, the aforementioned Rover Boys lasted twenty-seven years, without counting other Rover Boy-inspired series such as The Putnam Hall Cadets.) Plus, he used those same pen names in other series, so that readers who were a fan of one series would buy another that the same, fictional author had written. For example, Laura Lee Hope, the pseudonym behind The Bobbsey Twins, also supposedly wrote The Outdoor Girls, The Moving Picture Girls, The Make Believe Stories, Six Little Bunkers, Bunny Brown, and The Blythe Girls. It's easy to see why this pseudonym was kept for the six series, as their readers were all either young children or girls.

Stratemeyer didn't just create publishing guidelines—his keen business acumen also played into the writing of the more than one hundred series he was responsible for. By seeing what worked in his novels and what didn't, he created rules that can seem odd to us today but that had a real business impact on the Syndicate series.

For instance, when sales dropped after popular Nancy Drew forerunner Ruth Fielding (1913-1934) grew up and married, Stratemeyer created a new rule indicating that protagonists couldn't marry. Similarly, in the first Bobbsey Twins books, Nan, Bert, Freddie, and Flossie were a year older in every installation. Stratemeyer realized they would soon age out of the books, and this led to a new rule: protagonists couldn't age. These commercial guidelines were what kept Nancy Drew eternally eighteen and romantic subplots in the books always underdeveloped.

Stratemeyer made use of a number of other business tricks in his books: he encouraged writers to recap previous novels in successive ones as a form of marketing, and to use cliffhangers at the end of every page and chapter. Novels felt formulaic, with an information-giving title (Ruth Fielding at Silver Ranch tells you it's going to be a location-oriented story, while Nancy Drew and the Mystery of the Old Clock tells you it's a mystery story.) The predictable plot and likable protagonist also play into the comfortable nature of the series.

Speaking of mystery stories, that's another thing that the Stratemeyer Syndicate pioneered. Initially the Syndicate focused on location and character-driven adventures that were often solved by the end of the chapter. Bullies were a popular theme, and there was always a book or two in popular series such as The Rover Boys, Ruth Fielding and The Bobbsey Twins in which the protagonists went to school. In the early twentieth century, 'the modern school-story' had been popularized by Angela Brazil, in contrast to the sombre Victorian school-story as represented by 'Tom Brown's Schooldays.'

While the Syndicate rode the school-story fad initially, it abandoned it for a new trend: the mystery story. This was popularized in the late 1920s and early 1930s, with new series like Nancy Drew, while mysteries were incorporated into old series like Ruth Fielding and The Bobbsey Twins. Today, the mystery trend might be what the Syndicate series are most remembered for.

In 1930, Stratemeyer died, and the organization was passed onto his daughter, Harriet. She continued to oversee the Syndicate for fifty-two years, revising and republishing old and outdated series to make them more modern. In the 1970s, she decided to republish Nancy Drew in paperback. However, her decision had a fatal consequence: one of the Syndicate's publishing houses, Grosset and Dunlap, took them to trial, citing breach of contract, and exposed them to the world.

Until then, the Stratemeyer Syndicate had done everything it could to remain as secretive as possible. Again, this was important because to avoid market overload, readers could not know the real source of different series.

During the trial, one of Nancy Drew's ghostwriters testified: Mildred Wirt Benson, who is now perhaps the most famous of Syndicate writers. In her lifetime she wrote hundred of books, and once said her favorite was Penny Parker, a series about a newspaper girl sleuth. (Sounds familiar.)

Apart from Benson, hundred of others contributed to the Syndicate series, and while they were paid very little initially, Stratemeyer gave them part of the series' royalties in his books. So the ghostwriters' stories had a happy ending, after all.

Many novels by the Stratemeyer series are in the public domain and can be read online. You can read The Rover Boys series here and Ruth Fielding here.

Bessie Blue is a lover of old books who writes at Vintage Book Life.

Friday, February 13, 2015

An Art of Poetry by James McAuley

So, this week I was planning on reviewing Owen Barfield's History in English Words, a philological classic from one of the rarer Inklings. Unfortunately, though, some things have come up, and I'll have to postpone that review in favour of a poem.

Not in opaque but limpid wells Lie truth and mystery. (Source)
James McAuley has become one of my favourite poets. This is odd for two reasons. The first is that he is a recent poet, having died less than fifty years ago. The second is that he is Australian, and for years I was unaware of my native land having produced anyone quite so spectacularly good (not even Banjo Paterson). As I've explained in a previous post, McAuley took a long and fascinating journey to become one of the most controversial poets in Australian history, a staunch Christian and anti-modernist, before being more or less hushed up and forgotten after his death.

Today I'd like to share a recent favourite poem. McAuley's style is a little different to many of my favourite poets; he keeps most of his poems short and tight, using words with splendid economy. The real beauty of poetry lies in saying volumes in just a few brief words that conjure up a whole host of harmonious but diverse meanings, allusions, and echoes, so that one line of poem is like the plucking of a string. One does not simply hear a sound; one hears the whole spectrum of lesser vibrations, the third, fifth, and octave of the original note, resounding slowly into silence. That is what reading good poetry is like, and with McAuley's poetry, the effect is particularly notable.

Another thing that recently struck me about McAuley's style is its grace. I'll have another go at describing this quality when I review History in English Words, but for now, let me just describe it as something best experienced in Middle English poetry, medieval chivalric romances, John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress, and the like. It is courtesy in the old Spenserian sense, meaning honest affection shown from a sincere heart. Not merely politeness, but kindness, courtliness, and nobility. Most modern authors, even Christian authors, even my favourites, do not capture this quality. James McAuley does.

An Art of Poetry
by James McAuley

To Vincent Buckley

Since all our keys are lost or broken,
Shall it be thought absurd
If for an art of words I turn
Discreetly to the Word?

Drawn inward by his love, we trace
Art to its secret springs:
What, are we masters in Israel
And do not know these things?

Lord Christ from out his treasury
Brings forth things new and old:
We have those treasures in earthen vessels,
In parables he told,

And in the single images
Of seed, and fish, and stone,
Or, shaped in deed and miracle,
To living poems grown.

Scorn then to darken and contract
The landscape of the heart
By individual, arbitrary
And self-expressive art.

Let your speech be ordered wholly
By an intellectual love;
Elucidate the carnal maze
With clear light from above.

Give every image space and air
To grow, or as bird to fly;
So shall one grain of mustard-seed
Quite overspread the sky.

Let your literal figures shine
With pure transparency:
Not in opaque but limpid wells
Lie truth and mystery.

And universal meanings spring
From what the proud pass by:
Only the simplest forms can hold
A vast complexity.

We know, where Christ has set his hand
Only the real remains:
I am impatient for that loss
By which the spirit gains.
 

Saturday, February 7, 2015

So Disdained by Nevil Shute

The novelist Nevil Shute, an Englishman who settled in Australia in 1950 and wrote the famous Australian novel A Town Like Alice, is one of those authors I seem to have spent much of my life for the last couple of years avoiding. Incidentally, I have a few books which glare at me judgementally from the bookshelf, whispering You know I'm an Important Novel. That's the only reason you aren't reading me. Besides A Town Like Alice, the two that immediately spring to mind are To Kill A Mockingbird and The Name of the Rose.

When a friend sent me Shute's early work So Disdained as a gift, I thought that it looked absorbing enough (and obscure enough) to be a painless introduction to Shute's work. Here's the plot:

Peter Moran hasn't flown an aeroplane for ten years, when one night on his way home across the Sussex Downs to the estate he manages, he comes across an RAF pilot he knew in the Great War. At first, Maurice Lenden tries to give a false name, but then bit by bit his story comes out. After years failing to make ends meet in England as a professional pilot, Lenden finally took a job with the Soviets. And when they offered him a thousand pounds to fly back to England in the dead of night and photograph the mysterious installations in Portsmouth harbour, he never imagined he had become a spy until it was already too late to turn back.

As British Intelligence searches for the pilot of the downed spy plane, Peter Moran must choose between his country and his friendship.

So, there was a lot that I liked about this novel, as well as a lot that I didn’t. Chewing over why I didn’t like what I didn’t like has been thoroughly informative, though, so I call it a net profit. I'm going to go into plot details from here on, so if you want to avoid spoilers, go and read the book first.

Parts of it were very absorbing. Shute writes well when his narrator is playing the piano or flying a plane (as an aeronautical engineer, he knows enough to make the planes real characters in the story). The foreshadowing is very effective, and the last three chapters were gripping enough to dim the memory of the rather pedestrian plot up to that point. On the other hand, the characterisation was unsatisfying. The plot depends on the narrator, and many other key characters, deciding to help Lenden to great personal disadvantage, but for no apparent reason. For this to work, the character of Lenden needed to have some palpable charm. But I didn't feel it, and none of it rang true.

Not until the moment at which Lenden regains some moral strength of character. The moment when he did so, and the manner of his regaining it, was one of the really lovely things about this book, a thing that did ring true. When I worked in a law firm, I witnessed enough divorces to know that few things demoralise a man so much as losing his wife. It was so satisfying and touching to read a story in which that process happens in reverse, and I loved that it went hand-in-hand with a resurrection of Lenden's dead patriotism. It was all very reminiscent of GK Chesterton—“The true soldier fights, not because he hates what is in front of him, but because he loves what is behind him.”

I also particularly relished the specific manifestation of patriotism which the book presented. The narrator feels nothing for England, but he feels a very particular love for his own small part of it, Sussex. His patriotism is not a jingoistic affair, because it isn’t ideologically motivated. Instead, it’s motivated by thoroughly practical, solid things: Cows. Land. Neighbours. Also, there were a few other thoroughly lovely things in this book—meditations on beauty, courage, and perseverance. But there was one thing that rather spoiled it for me.

I got my first inkling that something was wrong within the first few pages of the book, when an Author’s Note cropped up in which Shute rather apologetically explained that he wrote this novel in his early days, you know, back in the days when he still thought it was a good idea to write about spies and adventure and similar conceits. As someone with a rather melodramatic and unabashed love for these things, I began to read with a sense of foreboding.

(Shute’s Note reminded me of all the Amazon reviews I read of one of my least-favourite books ever, Zorro: A Novel. All those Amazon reviews apologised, blushing, for having stooped to read a swashbuckler. But it’s alright! This one actually had literary pretensions! We were able to enjoy it in a highbrow manner!

The novel was, of course, the worst swashbuckler I have ever read).

So Disdained was not, to my relief, the worst thriller I have ever read. Shute makes periodic attempts to write a spy thriller, and in those passages, he mostly succeeds, although I thought the character of Stenning (who turns up in the last couple of chapters and oversees the climax with two-fisted zeal) was equal parts uncomfortable and cheesy, like an escapee from a particularly fruity Alistair MacLean novel. But despite periodic success with the thriller, I felt Shute’s heart wasn’t truly in the genre. He didn’t have a good ear for what worked, and he was much too interested in lengthy discursions on unrelated topics, more suited to realist lit fic. The plot just doesn’t hang together well; the law of conservation of detail is abandoned from the start. I tend to think that most lit fic has terrible plotting, but for a thriller, this was particularly bad. For example, somewhere around the midpoint of the novel, the narrator meets a supporting character who only appears in that scene. They have a long discussion, and then as an afterthought the supporting character gives the narrator a letter. That letter turns out to be a crucial link in the plot. Nothing else in that scene—the supporting character, the long discussion—ever comes up again.

All this would be bad enough, except that by the end of the novel, I began to suspect that Shute had abandoned the idea of writing a thriller and had decided to write a deconstruction of a thriller. There is a thrilling, death-defying journey taken by the narrator from England, where he kisses his fiancee tenderly goodbye, wondering if he'll ever see her again, to Italy, where after a couple of hours she turns up, having followed him by a laughably easy route. She brings with her the aforesaid Alistair MacLean escapee, who then takes over and does all the theatrical stuff we would expect from the narrator, which is a shame because the narrator would not have been half so hammy, him being more of a classic antihero and all.

What made me suspect most strongly that this book was a deconstruction, however, was the fact that the plot achieves very little. By the end of the book, three main stakes have arisen in the plot. The two biggest are resolved around halfway through the book, leaving only the third for the climax. Lenden rushes off to Europe to catch the photographs which he doesn’t realise have already been sabotaged. The narrator rushes after to waylay him and prevent him walking into certain death on a fool’s errand, arriving just in time to witness Lenden's perfectly pointless death.

At the end of the book, I think I’m supposed to find it touching that Lenden insists on opening the packet and destroying the photos as he lies dying—unaware that the narrator has already destroyed them. I don’t find it touching. It's a shoot-the-shaggy-dog-story.

That is if you look at this novel as if it’s a thriller. However, if you look at it as lit fic—that is, if you cease to see the external action as a metaphor for the internal action—if you look at it as lit fic, and just pay attention to the characters’ inner journey, then it becomes apparent why this is a triumph for Lenden. He has gone from being someone who doesn’t care at all, to someone who will give his life self-sacrificially for a cause. He dies at the end, but he dies complete.

So Disdained is an odd creature. It’s a terrible thriller, but it’s actually a nice bit of lit fic. In a thriller, we expect the outer action to be an outworking of the inner action. A thriller about a man regaining his patriotism would see him achieving some great goal for his country, with or without the cost of his life. The triumph of his inner journey would be expressed in the triumph of his outer journey. In lit fic, the rules of the thriller genre don’t apply, and we’re able to focus on and appreciate the inner journey despite the total futility of the patriot’s attempt to serve his country.

Or can we? Can the inner journey really be detached from the outer journey like that? So Disdained is basically unsatisfying, because no matter which way you slice it, Lenden dies on such a fool's errand that the patriotic message is rendered hollow and cynical.

Is Shute's discomfort with the thriller genre the thing that makes this novel so uneven and undecided between genres? Do his more "literary" works succeed better in making a point without sacrificing good storytelling? Maybe I'll have to read A Town Like Alice to find out.

Find So Disdained on Amazon or The Book Depository.

Friday, January 30, 2015

The House of the Four Winds by John Buchan

I have been slowly working through John Buchan's Dickson McCunn novels over the last year or two, and last week I meandered through the third and last of the Dickson McCunn novels, The House of the Four Winds.

Two years after the events of Castle Gay, the world still waits with baited breath for the downfall of the Communist Republican government of the fictional Eastern European country Evallonia to the forces of the Monarchists, whose figure-head, the young and chivalrous Prince John, we met in the previous novel. As all the old familiar characters prepare to leave England for holidays on the Continent, a rumour floats around London high society: Don't go too far East. Something is about to happen in Evallonia.

It's Jaikie, of course, who gets sucked into it first. When his friend Alison's cousin Randal Glynde appears atop a circus elephant and invites him to dinner at an Evallonian castle--The House of the Four Winds--Jaikie accepts, but he doesn't agree to stay until an old Cambridge acquaintance, Count Paul Jovian of the nationalist youth movement, Juventus, ambushes him on his way out of the country. Meanwhile in Germany, when Alison discovers that someone has mislaid Prince John in the mountains, she enlists those respectable diplomats, Sir Archie and Lady Janet Roylance to help kidnap him--purely for safe-keeping, of course. With Republicans, Monarchists, and Juventus practically at each other's throats, it's up to Dickson McCunn (retired grocer), Jaikie Galt (rugby three-quarter) and Alison Westwater (trusty conspirator) to calm Evallonia's political upheavals, restore the rightful king, and evade the wrath of the fearsome Countess Araminta Troyos.

Obviously, this is not an overly serious book. John Buchan was quite capable of crushingly tragic novels like Midwinter or Witch Wood, but when he writes Dickson McCunn, his tongue is always planted firmly in his cheek. The House of the Four Winds is delightful--basically a farcical version of The Prisoner of Zenda, in which an elderly Scotsman impersonates the king and the part of the romantic princess is taken by a theatrical amazon. That said, I was surprised by the big issues the book explores.

The most momentous event of John Buchan's life, as for all his generation, was World War I. A keen intelligence and high position at the heart of English politics and public life poised Buchan uniquely well to comment on the cultural impact of that conflict. His conclusions are contained most plainly in his memoir, Memory Hold-the-Door, as well as being encoded into fiction in The Three Hostages, The Dancing Floor...and The House of the Four Winds. To recap his views rather quickly, he believed that the War had dealt a death-blow to the notion of human perfectibility: it had quenched humanist optimism. He saw a new generation, rootless and disillusioned but powerful and unfettered, rising up to abandon the rationalist agnosticism of its parents. He believed two basic things about this post-war youth: first, as explained in The Dancing Floor, that it was uniquely ripe to be turned back to Christianity; and second, as shown in The Three Hostages, that if it did not do that, then it would be susceptible to mysticism, cults, and dictators.

The Three Hostages was published in 1924, and The Dancing Floor in 1926. When Buchan revisited the same theme in The House of the Four Winds, a decade had gone by. It was 1935. Hitler, Mussolini, and other personalities had arisen. And they had their nationalist youth movements, as well as their paramilitary organisations, their Brownshirts and their Blackshirts. One might assume that Buchan's green-shirted paramilitary Juventus movement was a bit of upper-class British naivete, but Buchan was anything but naive, and the express comparison of Juventus's logo with Hitler's swastika should remove any doubts. Juventus, however, has much in common with the 1930s German Youth Movement than it has with the Hitler Youth which later supplanted and eventually suppressed it: it has no particular political leanings and no single figure-head. For Buchan, once again, Juventus represents the power and potential of postwar youth: no longer rootless and disillusioned, but finding meaning in a strenuous outdoors life of discipline and adventure.

Buchan doesn't however, idolise these nationalist youth movements. His characters find them, in fact, both dangerous and ridiculous: dangerous because of their lack of a sense of humour, ridiculous because of their insistence on ideological purity, which keeps Evallonian politics all tied up in knots: the Communist government will fall if anyone so much as sneezes, but the Monarchists dare not install Prince John for fear that Juventus will immediately depose him, not out of dislike for the Prince himself but out of dislike for his stuffy old supporters.

The answer is not so much to convince them, as to trick them into supporting the right candidate. This happens with all the usual amount of Buchan fun and adventure, almost slipping over into self-parody, but the message is the same: idealistic youth is a force in the world, capable of great good--or great disaster. In the event, Juventus's real-life counterparts brought about disaster.

Find The House of the Four Winds on Amazon, The Book Depository, or Project Gutenberg.

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