Books I read this March

IMG_1641You don’t need me to tell you that this has been a month of drastic change and disruption, but despite it all I still found the time to finish eleven books, from classical tragedies to modern fantasy.

James I: The Phoenix King, by Thomas Cogwell

Cogwell hits on the neat concept of introducing each chapter with a fresh portrait of James, starting with a truly wonderful childhood portrait where the King has a tiny waist and cartoonishly flared puffling pants tapering to delicate feet. Only the hawk perched on his wrist and the directness of his gaze show the cool depths of his power. It’s a sympathetic portrait of a King whose manhood was tested in the poisonous cut-throat world of Scottish politics, and who treated his English reign as if it was Christmas every day; a King who, for all his weaknesses and lack of interest in government as compared to hunting, brought stability to Britain after the tumultuous changes of the Tudor dynasty. Highlights are the plots and murders–not just Guy Fawkes but Sir Thomas Overbury, and enough Scottish backstabbing to rival Macbeth. Plus King James’s steamy homosexual affair with his court favourites, where we have the letters and can overhear their terms of endearment.

The Legend of the Sleepers, by Danilo Kis, trans. Michael Henry Heim, revised by Mark Thomson

A pair of biblical short stories by a Balkan writer who wasn’t quite my thing. I liked the premise of both, but I found the prolixity of the Sleepers rather tiresome, and Simon Magus bathetic in its conclusion. I can see the influence of Borges, but I don’t feel the fascination of Borges’ puzzle-box conceptual plotting.

Come Close, by Sappho, trans. Aaron Poochigan

Dropped in for a poem, then thought I might as well read the whole thing, given it’s 40 odd pages of very short poems. I thought a rhyming translation of Sappho would be utterly odious, but these ingeniously enjambed full and half rhymes avoid the trap of making Sappho sound like a pop-song; it’s more like stumbling on a modernised Renaissance lyric, which is fine craftsmanship indeed. Free verse captures the tragic fragmentation of Sappho’s work more accurately, but this one has a haunting music of its own.

Poems by Alexander Pope, selected by John Fuller

It’s often good to read a selected even when I have a collected, as the new arrangement casts new light. I skipped The Rape of the Lock, with which I’m a bit too familiar, but I enjoyed the rest of it, revealing a lighter, racier Pope than the sententious moralist of The Essay of Man and the Epistles, and one more willing to venture away from the exquisitely balanced heroic couplet, of which Pope remains the unsurpassed master.

The Vagabond King, by Jodie Bond

My first time reading a novel where I’m mentioned in the acknowledgements! Jodie brought this to our emerging writers weekend in Ty Newydd, and it was published about a year later. It’s interesting to read a fantasy novel with actual Homeric machinery, an original feature well exploited in the clash of Deyar and Zenith, elemental Gods playing games with the fates of men. A grimdark novel that moves along with admirable speed and urgency–the first 100 pages would serve more turgid writers as vol.1 of a trilogy.

Wigs on the Green, by Nancy Mitford

Her third novel, and the one where she cocks a snook at her fascist-sympathiser sisters, Unity and Diana, through a gentle Wodehouse-style comedy. There is a baffling lack of actual wigs on greens, and my 20s slang powers aren’t strong enough to translate. A wonderfully direct, vivid beginning introduces us to Jasper Aspect, a first-class rotter and the book’s most engaging character. It’s almost up there with Wodehouse, but you sense that Plum liked his thieves, blackmailers and even his models of efficiency, while Mitford has strong ideas who are the loveable rogues and who are the provincial snonbs. That and the rather comic-opera approach it takes to the rise of fascism are a bit of a drag on an otherwise amusing novel.

The Fortune of War, by Patrick O’Brian, read by Ric Jerrom

Aubrey and Maturin in America, during the War of 1812. The first half of the book is all about getting the players into place, but I don’t mind a voyage to nowhere in the least. The second part is a land-based espionage thriller. The appeal of O’Brian generally palls as the books spend less time at sea, but this one I like, due to the contrast between the cloak-and-dagger stuff in Boston and the never-mind-maneouvres-go-straight-at-’em thrills of the sea battles, taken faithfully from history. Suffers a bit from being the sequel to Desolation Island, one of my absolute faves, but this is still very very good.

The Pickwick Papers, by Charles Dickens

The most feel-good Dickens novel, a collection of incidents linked by an engagingly silly set of characters–some of whom, like Mr Pickwick and Sam Weller, Dickens never outdid in his whole writing career. There are brief flashes of the satirical sledgehammer he was later to become, particularly when Mr Pickwick winds up in debtors prison on a matter of principle. But in general it’s easy, comic reading that rewards the time to relax and enjoy it. Not that dissimilar to Gavin and Stacey, or so I was musing, in its appreciation for pubs and their comforts, the joys of Christmas, vivid eccentric characters, and the pleasures and perils of the road.

Ma’am Darling: 99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret, by Craig Brown

It’s hard to imagine anything more dreary than a formal courtier-biography of Princess Margaret: fortunately, what we have here is a lively collage biography in 99 chapters, ranging from singular anecdotes to droll counterfactuals, exercises in style, character studies, Notes on Ma’am Camp and the London bohemia, and review essays on the memoirists who have chronicled their encounters with the Princess. It’s infinitely pacier than The Crown; a compulsive read that wears its gossipy erudition lightly.

Persian Fire, by Tom Holland

A fine popular history of the Persian War, the sort of thing that gives one a mental framework to make reading Herodotus a hell of a lot easier. Fits in rather nicely with the dribs and drabs of Plutarch I’ve been reading of late–though, perhaps because of this, I found the early background chapters on the Persian Empire, Athens and Sparta were rather slow. The battles, however, are enthralling. There are names here to conjure with: Marathon, Thermopylae, Salamis and Platea, never more vividly brought to life. It still strikes me, however, that Rubicon is his best and most enjoyable book.

Electra, by Euripides, trans. Emily Townsend Vermeule

All the big three Greek tragedians took a pop at this episode: the murder of Clytaemnestra by her son Orestes, with his sister Electra urging him on. This play takes a fresh approach by opening with Electra forcibly married to a poor farmer in the country–quite the most sympathetic character in the piece, seeing he acts towards her with scrupulous honour and kindness, despite the fact that her constant mourning for her father must have been a trial. From there, the predictable beats resume: the recognition scene, the murder behind closed doors, the exhibition of the bodies. It suffers a bit from being read so soon after Orestes, with its ‘burn it all down’ approach to the same tired material, and the brooding presence of the cursed House of Atreus is missed in the new setting. A free verse translation, with long lines that ape Greek hexameters, not altogether as successfully as Richmond Lattimore does it.

Books I read in February

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Being on lockdown for the foreseeable, along with a quarter of the planet, I thought I would update this interrupted blog series with an account of the books I read in February, before March rolls around. Counting long poems and several 60 page Penguin Modern classics, it makes 14 books. It’ll be interesting to see that number go up as social distancing continues.

Votan, by John James

The story of a Greek called Photinus whose adventures in the wild North lay down a fabric of legend that will grow into Norse Myth, and who ends up fathering half the royal lines in Scandinavia. A strange book, with a grim cruel narrator it’s hard to root for, and a Dark Age background that never quite comes into focus. I caught some of the nods to Norse myths—the death of Balder being probably the most obvious—but I’m sure many more have slipped me by.

Cuba Libre, by Elmore Leonard

An interestingly Cuban take on the Western, set in the Spanish-American war. For all that, it overstayed its welcome—there are a lot of characters, mostly not as memorable as Leonard’s usual, and the ones I liked didn’t stick around long enough.

Notes on ‘Camp’, by Susan Sonntag

Two essays in pocket form. The titular notes are a delight, with a wide frame of cultural reference and an impish, mischievous spirit. The other one’s a slog—a spent round from an old culture war I couldn’t give two hoots about. A mixed bag that leaves me ambivalent about seeking out more.

Dark Days, by James Baldwin

Three marvellous essays, by turns melancholy, proud and furious, but filled with the best kind of wisdom, that kind that only comes out of a life of hard thought and long struggle. And what a style! Would definitely read more.

The Finger, by William Burroughs

I’m easily grossed out, so this slim selection seemed like a good way to get a flavour of this notorious author without having to get through something like Junky or The Naked Lunch. It’s only partly successful, as I don’t get to sample the famous cut-up technique, but these stories are just as gruesome as expected. Pick of the bunch is The Junkie’s Christmas, a twisted good Samaritan tale, followed by The Finger, a semi-autobiographical account of Burrough’s own self-mutilation. The later, Tangier-set ones are more sketches than stories, and their open pederasty is rather revolting.

Piccadilly Jim, by PG Wodehouse

A gloriously unlikely but enjoyable romp, filled with imposters and double imposters, kidnap plots, poetasters, and baseball/cricket arcana. Well up to the usual Wodehouse standard.

Rex: An Autobiography, by Rex Harrison

By Hay Castle are a pair of cloistered outdoor shelves, where you can pick up any book you like provided you drop a quid in the honesty box. It’s a good spot for lucky finds—I saw this charming, photo-stuffed hardback and snapped it up, turning immediately to the chapters on Cleopatra and My Fair Lady, which were good enough to make me read through from the beginning. It’s a good life, defiantly unghosted, with a fair bit of womanising, a good deal of tragedy, interesting war work and a whole lot of memorable anecdotes: a snapshot of the time that’s a welcome break from the heavier reading.

Doctor Who: Scratchman, by Tom Baker and James Goss

This book is better than it has any right to be, seeing that it’s based on a madcap, drunken idea for a Doctor Who film that Tom Baker and Ian Marter came up with on a weekend in the 1970s. It turns out to be a decent sort of Wicker Man folk horror for the first half, with a nightmarishly surreal second part in which the Doctor confronts (and eventually beats) the devil. If there are a few too many hairs-breadth escapes and not as much logical rigour as I’d like, it’s more than made up for by the fact that the story works on two levels. Beneath the knockabout plot, it’s a book about Tom Baker’s love for a role he played for 9 years, the terror of not being the Doctor any more, and the marvellous fact that the role is open to anyone. Even you and me.

The Towers of Trebizond, by Rose Macaulay

Sad endings are always the worst when you don’t see them coming. Anna Karenina and King Lear are bearable since the approaching calamity is known already; in other books, the foreshadowing softens the blow. This book, for much of its length, is an eccentric, hilarious romp of the kind that immediately makes one want to light out for the Black Sea coast and start taking camel riding lessons. Part of the charm was a structure so unpredictable it was impossible to tell where the plot would head next—only in the tragic aftermath do the comic episodes pull together into a melancholy, but rather lovely, thematic coherence.

Athelston, in Middle English Verse Romances

These are fun for stretching my language skills without being particularly difficult in plot or rhetoric. This one almost has the plot of a fairy tale, with the innocent vindicated and the wicked coming to a very sticky end, and despite the occasional stock line the verse lilts along nicely.

Sir Launfal, in Middle English Verse Romances

A tale of Arthur’s knights, based apparently on the Breton Lais, which I recall having to read in a terribly dull prose translation in university. This again has more the feel of a fairy story: a poor knight is taken as lover by a fairy lady who lavishes him with gifts, temporarily abandons him after he inadvertently breaks his word but comes back at last to carry him away into fairyland. Poor Guenevre does not come off at all well here, getting Sir Launfal into hot water with the court after he turns down her advances.

The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Ever since going through a rough period at one of my school placements, I’ve cried really easily, and I welled up at multiple points while reading this children’s classic. I can still remember as a kid how much I wanted to be Dickon, and it’s nice to reflect I can name more trees, flowers, birds and constellations than I could as a kid. My year 7 class are such inner-city kids that they don’t even know what a robin looks like, so it’s interesting to think about how to bring some nature to them—starting with a bunch of daffs on Wednesday.

The Veiled Woman, by Anaïs Nin

Damn saucy stuff! Like most erotica, best taken one at a time. This 50 page modern classic is about the right length for one go.

Orestes, by Euripides, trans. William Arrowsmith

This is a tragedy one would rather like to be in the original Greek audience for just to watch everyone’s jaws drop. Talk about subverting audience expectations! We open with Pylades, Orestes and Electra from the trilogy by Aeschylus, and we think we know how it’s going to go—Orestes, tormented by furies following his revenge murder of Clytemnestra, wins the angry townspeople over to his side. Instead, they try to murder Helen, kidnap Helen’s daughter Hermione, and set their own house on fire. Apollo comes on at the end to do damage control, but it feels too pat and way too late.

Books I read this November

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Nineteen books this month; none of them War and Peace, and the numbers swelled a little by including separate plays in the same volume. A busy December meant I’ve only just had time to write them up.

Good Morning, Midnight, by Jean Rhys

I like a plot too much to be a good Modernist–it’s one of the reasons why the only two Virginia Woolf books I’ve taken to are Flush and Orlando. Anyway, this is the story of a skint, socially anxious flaneureuse with a tragic past, wandering through Paris at night. It reads kind of like a female Down and Out in Paris and London, without Orwell’s journalistic tendencies. I thought the crushing misery of the opening chapters would wear me out over the book’s course, but I found myself more involved than I expected. Credit to my girlfriend for inciting me to step outside my comfort zone with this one.

Mary I: The Daughter of Time, by John Edwards

Edwards starts with a tub-thumping introduction on the need to re-evaluate ‘Bloody Mary’ and let her step outside the long shadow of her half-sister. There’s some good rehabilitatory work here on the breadth and scope of her education, her stubborn will and the talents of her bishops and advisors. There’s also her marriage to Prince Philip of Spain, one of England’s vanishingly few King Consorts and rarely if ever referred to as King Philip I of England. He’s a horrible character, and Mary’s never more sympathetic than in her devotion to him, even as, realising she’s unlikely to give him a child, he starts eyeing up Elizabeth. The price of this revisionism is that Edwards’s account of the burning of 300 Protestants gets subsumed entirely into his account of Mary’s success at re-Catholicising the English Church. The way he compares English heresy laws with the Spanish Inquisition is more than a little chilling, and a moral judgement here would have given us a book with more heart.

Rubicon, by Tom Holland

A history of the collapse of the Roman Republic from the dictatorship of Sulla through to the final triumph of Octavian. Holland writes with enormous pace and wit, and his prose reminds me pleasantly of the early twentieth century in its occasional references to a shared literary culture that lesser authors assume to have perished. Catching the unassuming allusions to Yeats, Shakespeare and Shelley was delightful. Nor was I bored when things moved from the relatively unexplored period of the Marius / Sulla rivalry to the more familiar campaigns of Caesar–Holland sheds fresh light wherever he goes, and his Cleopatra is a constant stealer of scenes.

Boys, Girls and Learning Pocketbook, by Ian Smith

A useful, accessible little guide to research on gender in education, complete with little cartoons. Some of it meshes really well with the targets I’m being set and the kind of behaviour I’m seeing in schools, but I think the most useful bits have less to do with gender and more to do with the ethos of the classroom.

Erato, by Deryn Rees-Jones

Serious, thought-provoking poetry, reviewed for Wales Arts Review.

Claudine at School, by Colette, trans. Antonia White.

First term at Malory Towers this is not. The two mademoiselles in charge of the school are conducting a torrid lesbian affair, the school inspector will grope anything in a skirt, and the class are more or less left to their own devices. None of this much bothers Claudine, except insofar as it provides an opportunity for mischief. It’s very French, but even in France, you’d never get away with it these days, and I enjoyed it despite my urge to raise my eyes heavenwards and shriek ‘Won’t somebody think of the safeguarding issues?’

Wyrms, by Orson Scott Card

This novel begins brilliantly, with some thoroughly gripping palace intrigue which reminded me of Dune, but afterwards resolved itself into a fairly straightforward quest structure. The worldbuilding gave it interest–Scott Card can really write aliens, and his fascination with hybridity comes through just as clearly here as in Speaker for the Dead. The conclusion feels a bit of a let down, with the big bad–the Unwyrm–much more effective as a distant presence than an immediate foe. The book’s going to remain in my memory a long time, though, for its vivid aliens, Greek Orthodox backdrop, and sheer psychosexual weirdness. It’s like a deeply messed-up version of C.S. Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet.

Flush, by Virginia Woolf

As I said earlier, I’ve resigned myself some time ago to being a shallow reader of Woolf, but I will always love her for Flush, the warm, genial and surprisingly moving biography of Elizabeth Barrett-Browning’s pet spaniel. It’s a shame Woolf killed herself before she could do more in this vein.

Flashman at the Charge, by George MacDonald Frazer

Reading a Flashman novel is like watching The Wolf of Wall Street–frightfully politically incorrect, hugely enjoyable, and surprisingly clear-eyed in its examination of British Imperial / American Financial excess. This one’s a globe-trotter, with the Crimean War and the charge of the Light Brigade covered in the first 100 pages: other episodes include a peasant revolt in Tsarist Russia and a guerrilla campaign in Central Asia. I expected my interest to droop after we left the Crimea, but the last section of the novel is perhaps the funniest and most moving.

The Barretts of Wimpole Street, by Rudolph Bessier

After finishing Flush for the second time, I felt a renewed impulse to track down and read this famous old melodrama online. It takes great temporal leaps, but observes the unity of place with fearsome loyalty, never moving outside of EBB’s room. For the 1930s, it’s surprisingly Freudian, and the Gothic figure of Mr Barrett, with his stifled incestuous urges, is a tremendous villain, even if the whole thing is still a bit too stagey to rival Tennessee Williams.

Alcestis, by Euripides, trans. Richard Lattimore

Someone on Facebook was saying that translations from the 40s are now nearly unreadable and only the modern translations of Euripides hold any water. I can’t say I agree–I’ve always had a thing for older translations over modern ones. There’s an 1893 Aeschylus that I love to pieces, right beside this amazing-smelling set of plays by Euripides in three volumes, printed in America in the 1960s. Like everything Lattimore ever did, this translation holds up; he does the Greek hexameter in six-stress lines so fluid and subtle it took me most of the play to notice. It’s the story of Adrastus, who has Apollo’s permission to escape Death if anyone is willing to die in his place. His wife Alcestis steps up to the task, and the play explores what kind of man he is to let her make that sacrifice. Fortunately, his best mate Heracles is at hand to wrestle Hades and drag Alcestis back from death, but this is the first play I can think of where the question of what happens after the curtain drops is as urgent as in Merchant of Venice or Measure for Measure. Has Adrastus learnt his lesson? What the hell does Alcestis say to him when she’s been purified and can speak again? Will the marriage recover? How do their children cope? Any number of things for a canny director to figure out.

W.H. Auden: Poems selected by John Fuller

I have a vast collected edition, but it’s often nice to borrow a slim selected to figure out what may have got lost in the churn. This edition has a clever organising principle: 2 pages for every year of Auden’s writing life, 1927-73. This, and clever selection from the longer poems, mitigates the idiocy of leaving out his single best poem, ‘Lullaby’.

The Great Hunger, by Patrick Kavanagh

A 50 page Penguin Modern Classics booklet, which is good because I did not find Kavanagh sympathetic and would have abandoned a larger selection before finishing. My interest flares up occasionally when his satiric side kicks in, as with ‘Pegasus’ but the bits that prefigure Heaney, especially the long title poem, are a dreadful slog. More than happy to stick closer to home with my R.S. Thomas and my Idris Davies.

The Medea, by Euripides, trans. Rex Warner

There’s an odd bit in the general introduction to this volume where Richmond Lattimore tells us that Euripides’ Medea is ‘several kinds of women unsuccessfully assembled’. This seems to me to be exactly the kind of basic error that puzzled many mid-twentieth century critics of Milton’s Satan in the both characters are deliberately, and brilliantly, deceptive. What you see is not what you get. Both engage our sympathies even where they should repulse us; there’s something thrilling in Medea’s triumph even though it comes at the cost of her children’s lives.

Warner’s 1944 translation has some of the metrical tics of his era, where he’s replaced blank verse with a trochaic / dactylic thing that just sounds weird. Auden might have been able to make it work, but it Warner’s hands it drains the speeches of some of their force, and only the end-stopped stichomythia are really effective.

The Heracleidae, by Euripides, trans. Ralph Gladstone

This edition being the work of several hands, their different styles make and interesting comparison. The verse of this translation is more to my tooth–fluid and daringly colloquial blank verse that takes a risk on rhyming the choral odes and by-and-large succeeds.  The play itself tells of the children of Heracles being hunted and harassed by King Eurystheus until they take up sanctuary in Athens, whose King decides to shelter them and fight for their cause. There are moments of high drama: I love it when the chorus tell the King of Athens  ‘For heaven’s sake don’t hit a diplomat’ to which the King retorts ‘Then let the diplomat behave himself’. Too often, however, the characters haven’t got the depth Euripides is known for. Alcmene, persecuted mother of the late Heracles, has possibilites, as does Macaria, the daughter of Heracles who agrees to be sacrificed to ensure the victory, but at the play’s end they haven’t made the impression they should.

Edward III: A Heroic Failure, by Jonathan Sumpton

Due to the limitations of the 100-page format, this is a book about the beginning of the Hundred Years War and everything else gets short shrift. We’re not told when Edward married Philippa of Hainhault, or even where Hainhault is. The first time we see the Black Prince, he’s already sixteen and being knighted on one of his father’s French campaigns. For what it is, though, the build-up to war in the first two chapters is gripping, as is the analysis of how Edward’s diplomatic and financial failings lost him all that his military genius won. At one point he had both the Kings of France and Scotland as his prisoners, but by the time he died his territories were just as unsettled and beset by the French and Scots as when he first came to the throne.

Stephen: The Reign of Anarchy, by Carl Watkins

The biography of Henry I was one of the best things I read in this series, bringing a forgotten golden age to vivid life. King Stephen’s biography is about how all this unravelled, with the realm divided between Stephen, an anointed King with a weak claim to the throne, and Mathilda, daughter and heir to King Henry but labouring under the disadvantage of being female in a heavily patriarchal age. The prose doesn’t dazzle, but it tells the story of this bloody stalemate clearly and effectively, making good use of the chronicle sources. It’s a bit hamstrung by the long recap for the benefit of those who haven’t read the previous book: Stephen doesn’t appear until page 10, which is very late in a book that only stretches to 90 pages, excluding notes.

Richard I: The Crusader King, by Thomas Asbridge

An enthusiastic biography of one of England’s folk hero Kings that asks all the revisionist questions–Did he abandon England for the Crusades? Was he a war criminal?–and comes up with a mainly positive evaluation, arguing that his chief failing was a lack of interest in continuing his dynasty. It ends on an effective cliffhanger, foreshadowing the disastrous reign of King John.

Alien, by Alan Dean Foster, read by Peter Guin

ADF is reputed to be the king of the film novelisation, and it’s interesting to see how the two forms hold up. The film is more elegant and less expository, though the book makes great use of the scene where the facehugger attacks Kane, making it properly horrific where the film goes for a jump scare. No amount of narration can rival the inspired creature design by H.R. Giger and wisely EDF doesn’t even try.

Books I read this October

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This month, by taking advantage of the half term and making good use of audiobooks, I managed to read a whopping 24 books.

Sanshirō, by Natsume Soseki

A peculiarly delicate coming-of-age novel set in Japan in 1907. The main character remains diffident, shy and inexpressive throughout, and very little happens in terms of plot, but the writing immerses you in another country and time period, making you live through another’s eyes.

Henry II: A Prince Among Princes, by Richard Barber

Unusually for an entry in the Penguin Monarchs series, the book begins with a chapter on ‘The Man’, stringing together eyewitness accounts from Walter Map, Gerald of Wales, etc. This works to give him a definite figure and personality, energising his earlier career. Only later, during his rupture with Thomas Becket, is this mental image usurped by Peter O’Toole. A tantalising and energetic brief introduction.

The Harder They Fall, by Bali Rai

Year 10 were getting a talk by the author in the library during their enrichment day, and I noticed one of his books on display. Thus, I spent half of his hour-long talk listening with half an ear while I breezed through this short children’s novel of a bully getting his comeuppance, brought up to date with scenes in food banks, lots of Batman references, and the key importance of mobile phones to the finale. Brisk, simple and relatable.

The Selected Poems, by Jonathan Swift, edited by A. Norman Jeffries

Swift, thou shouldst be living at this hour! At a time when there’s so much ire and so little wit in our public discourse, it was delightful to read some really pungent, scabrous satire. I always forget how rude Swift is; though he adopts the Scriblerian posture of scourging vice, not personalities, there’s plenty here that would now infringe our uptight libel laws. Some of the Dean’s verses that could even be mistaken in a poor light for the work of that atheist libertine, the Earl of Rochester. His poems benefit from being read quickly in bulk, I think. Nothing gets same-y, you appreciate the range of tone, and have more impetus to tackle the longer poems.

Richard II: A Brittle Glory, by Laura Ashe

Another outlier in this series, Ashe’s book feels less like a Richard II biography and more like a sociological study of medieval life, broken down into fields like Parliament, Religion and the City. It’s beautifully written, making extensive use of Chaucer and the Gawain poet to catch the texture of the period, and unlike last month’s biography of Henry V it thoughtfully interacts with and supplements Shakespeare’s portrayal of the King. I’m just still not sure that this thematic, non-chronological treatment is best suited to the biographical task.

The Railway Detective, by Edward Marsden

First in a series of paperback detective novels that seem popular, so I decided to give them a shot. However, I found the Victorian dialogue was stilted and the setpieces didn’t have the oomph I was hoping for. Struggled to finish it and will be sticking to my Boris Akunin in future.

Edward I: A New King Arthur?, by Andy King

This book balances its interests rather better than Ashe’s take on Richard II, with King admitting from the off that it’s hard to write a modern biography of a medieval King because their personality and their agency is thoroughly occluded by the bureaucracy that surrounds them. Chapters are thematic and only loosely chronological, but because King keeps Edward I in the centre of the frame at all times, he avoids the diffuseness of Ashe’s treatment. Edward’s reputation as a great lawmaker, working effectively with the medieval Parliament, is explored and illuminated as clearly as his mastery of warfare, and I finished it feeling like I’d gained a balanced insight into a King some hail as a glorious conqueror and other (particularly north of the border) vilify as a tyrant.

Macbeth, by William Shakespeare

I read this in the Oxford Schools Edition, which doesn’t get the plaudits due to it: it’s one of the most satisfactory Shakespeare reading experiences I’ve ever had, with clear concise marginal notes, charming little illustrations and helpful scholarly commentary in the front and back, including excerpts from Shakespeare’s sources. Stuff the Arden edition, with its two lines of Shakespeare to a page of academic disputation: this is the edition you want. Vastly enjoyed the play, to the point where I began muttering Macbeth’s final soliloquy to myself in the English Learning Base, and I am looking forward to teaching it.

Cratylus, by Plato

The whole of western philosophy is footnotes to Plato, they say, and this short dialogue on naming and etymology kicks off the linguistic branch that Saussure and Derrida will continue. I always found that side of things rather tedious, and the dialogue does rather suffer in translation, where Socrates’ lengthy (and I think satiric) etymologies of common Greek words don’t pass the language barrier. One thing that did strike me was when Socrates defined the title of the person who gives names to things as a legislator–I wondered if and how this fits in with Percy Shelley’s famous definition of poets as ‘the unacknowledged legislators of the world.’

Mr and Mrs Disraeli: A Strange Romance, by Daisy Hay

This is a charming book, telling the stories of Disraeli and his wife Mary Ann through their own letters, and the lifelong romance of their marriage has many sweet and tender moments. It’s definitely a one-archive book, however detailed that archive may be, and doesn’t quite stand alone as an account of the time and manners–for one thing, Gladstone’s barely in it! For a record of a marriage, though, there are few things to beat it.

How Much Land Does A Man Need? by Leo Tolstoy

One of the little black Penguins–80p for 80 pages, or two short stories by the famous Russian novelist. It’s almost the opposite experience to reading Anna Karenina; short and dramatic where Anna was long and symphonic, peasant stories full of devils and angels while Anna is a realist novel set among the upper classes. But for all that, the limpidity of  Tolstoy’s style carries over, and there’s a supreme art in making fiction this artless.

The Wanderings of Oisin and other poems, by William Butler Years

Yeats’s first ever volume of verse, a good proportion of which was later suppressed while other parts were comprehensively redrafted. The latter is particularly evident in the title poem, a three part epic where the first two parts were infinitely improved in later revisions, making the diction terser and more concrete where before it had been prone to a medieval fuzziness I think Yeats inherited from William Morris. The allegorical structure remains the same, however, which makes it an interesting study in form and content, and the time and effort needed for artistry to draw level with conception.

The Apology of Socrates, by Plato

It has been a long while since last I read this, and Socrates’ splendid lack of repentance and refusal to truckle to his judges struck me anew. Only Macheath–a much coarser character–rivals him for defiance in the face of the gallows. One of the easier, shorter and less ambitious dialogues of Plato, which is why dabblers like me tend to start off with the Apology and never quite get around to the Republic.

The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde

Read for the A-levels, where the students will be comparing it to The Bloody Chamber as part of the module on the Gothic. They’re unlikely bedfellows, I think, and especially with Dorian Gray there’s so much going on within it besides the Gothic that that theoretical lens only gives a partial view. In terms of the decadent movement, I think they’ve got much more in common.

The Bloody Chamber, by Angela Carter, read by Emilia Fox and Richard Armitage

The modern classic, a compendium of traditional fairy tales retold with savage and sexually provocative gusto, spawning a thousand imitators. Reread, like Dorian Gray, for the A-level course, alternating between the book and the audiobook as time allowed. Emilia Fox is a fine narrator, but she has all the lengthiest stories to herself, and I was left feeling I hadn’t had quite enough of Richard Armitage, who performs Puss in Boots with an infinitely seductive purr.

Confusion, by Stefan Zweig

This is a very gay novel–and precocious, seeing that it was written in German in 1927. It tells the story of an ingenue student and an elderly professor whose kind interest in him alternates with periods of brusque rejection. The twist isn’t terribly surprising to a modern reader, but it’s handled in a sympathetic fashion that doesn’t alienate twentieth-century sensibilities. The professor’s wife, who sleeps with the student, is rather underserved. Despite all this going on, the sexiest thing in the book is when the professor starts talking about Shakespeare.

Amors de Voyage, by Arthur Hugh Clough

There was a period in the nineteenth century where it suddenly became fashionable to write in English hexameters. Despite a few fine lines (‘Lover whose vehement kisses on lips irresponsive are squandered’) most of the poems turned out dreadfully turgid, with Robert Southey’s Vision of Judgement among the more notorious examples. It’s something of a piece with Clough’s standing as the poet laureate of agnosticism, doubt and uncertainty to award Amors de Voyage the equivocal title of ‘probably the best poem in English hexameters.’ The plot, in which the conceptual hero fails either to get caught up in the struggle for the Italian republic or to get the girl, is also a masterclass of ambivalence. It’s an odd fusion of epistolary novel, travelogue and Matthew Arnold’s ‘Marguerite’ poems extended into five cantos.

The Devil’s Pool, by George Sand

A pastoral novel of rural France, probably a great deal more charming in the original French, but more than sufficiently appealing in this elegant English translation.

Henry VI: A Good, Simple and Innocent Man, by James Ross

The tragedy of Henry VI was that he was suited to be almost anything other than a King. It’s possible to imagine him living a blameless and holy life in some sympathetic monastery whose brothers would have allowed him to express his fervent piety and nursed him through his occasional bouts of mental illness. Ross’s treatment is sympathetic, but does not shy away from Henry’s massive failings of leadership. He should be praised for making the complexities of the Hundred Years War and the War of the Roses understandable in a brief 100 pages. It’s a far easier and less confusing task than slogging through Shakespeare’s trilogy of history plays, which were perhaps never done better than when the BBC cut out great tranches of filler and distilled them down into two parts.

Edward IV: The Summer King, by A.J. Pollard

One of only three Kings between Richard II and Henry VIII not to get the full Shakespeare treatment, this elegant biography makes no bones about the fact he was really something of a rotter. His reign may pass the low bar of being more stable than that of his predecessor, the mentally ill Henry VI, but this charming sexual predator connived at the regicide of Henry and the judicial fratricide of his own brother, the Duke of Clarence Talented as he may have been in war, in peace his achievements were few, and it’s hard to think of a more repulsive character ever to occupy the English throne. Even Richard III shines brighter in the glamour of the revisionists and the dark brilliance of Shakespeare’s characterisation.

Under the Jaguar Sun, by Italo Calvino

A slim collection of three Calvino stories, united under the theme of the senses. ‘Under the Jaguar Sun’, representing taste, is the story of a cannibalism-curious couple touring the culinary and cultural highlights of Aztec Mexico, and feels a lot like a holiday piece. ‘A King Listens’, representing hearing, is a second person story that suffers by comparison to Calvino’s own If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller, and grows tiresome for lack of characterisation. ‘A Name, A Nose’, representing scent, has all the edged sensuousness of an Angela Carter piece combined with Calvino’s own structural genius, and stands as my favourite of the collection. I wonder if the title is parodying the debut novel of his countryman, Umberto Eco?

The Day of the Doctor by Stephen Moffat, read by Nicholas Briggs

Doctor Who’s 50th anniversary story was so wholly satisfying that it’s hard to imagine a better. Moffat’s novelisation, however, makes it a richer and deeper experience, challenging the easy assumptions of TV viewers and turning lines, characters and whole scenes on their head. If it’s sometimes a little clever-clever, the wit, care and imagination is staggering. Even in a scene where John Hurt, David Tennant and Matt Smith are in a room together, Moffat finds a way to add something. Nicholas Briggs is an experienced audio performer who also does the Dalek voices on the TV show, and his impersonation of John Hurt is spot-on. His Dalek Emperor voice from Series One makes a welcome cameo, one of several Easter Eggs in this stylish audiobook.

This Transmission, by Mike McNamara

The poet contacted me on social media asking if I could get him a review, and since the book was 36 pages long and free online, I volunteered to read it for the blog. He’s a songwriter as well, and the ones I liked best are the ones closest to songs, like the boastful, Nick Cave swagger of ‘From Prussia With Love’. Elsewhere, as in the Dylan-Thomas-saturated ‘Crab Apple Jack’, there’s such mystic intoxication of words that the poem itself passes out and slips under the table. A short lyric, ‘The Winter Palace’, stands out for simplicity and economy in a collection flooded by the stream of consciousness.

The October Man, by Ben Aaronovitch, read by Sam Peter Jackson

Breaking my own rule on never listening to a book before I read it, this Rivers of London novella does a barnstorming job of introducing an entirely new cast in a shared universe while also proving to be a surprisingly good entry point for the series. Both writing and narration give a vivid impression of the German setting, characters and rhythms of speech.

Excerpt from The Fortress Unvanquishable

Some of you may remember my high-fantasy ballad, The Fortress Unvanquishable Save For Sacnoth; I wrote a making-of blog here. Here’s two minutes of the full thirty minute run time, presented as an audition piece.

In this part of the poem, the hero Leothric has been told that he must defeat Tharagaverug, the metal crocodile, in order to forge the sword Sacnoth from his body. Accordingly,

He wore his coat of shining mail,
He wore his battle-helm…

 

Books I read this August

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This wasn’t my most ravenous month for reading, distracted as I was by a two week residential course and preparations to move to Birmingham. Lord knows how far my rate will fall off do when I’m holding down a job! Most of these were rather slim things, apart from one mighty tome I’d been nibbling away at for months.

William Morgan, by Richard Tudor Edwards

A biography of the first Welsh translator of the Bible, read because a friend of mine is looking after his birthplace for the National Trust. It’s beautifully printed, and the first chapter is a charmingly dated sketch of Tudor Wales compared to the Wales of the 1960s, before the A470 linked the country up. As a biography, however, it’s a bust: tedious in its speculations, boringly repetitive in its use of the few known facts of Morgan’s life, and without any useful insight into his character.

The Monk and the Hangman’s Daughter, by Ambrose Bierce

An enjoyable little Gothic novella by a writer I always get confused with Algernon Blackwood. From what I’ve read, however, Bierce seems to be a better and less anti-Semitic author.

Graven with Diamonds: The Many Lives of Thomas Wyatt, by Nicola Shulman

A good biography that leverages the little that’s known of Wyatt’s early career to give us a potted history of Tudor intrigue at the court of Henry VIII, sustained by brilliant and accessible close readings of Wyatt’s poetry. Particularly good on Wyatt’s later life, when we’re past the reigns of Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn (rather familiar ground for me) and Wyatt starts to come into his own as a diplomat. Made me keen to reread the poetry, armed with new knowledge.

Othello, by William Shakespeare

Read while dogsitting for my girlfriend’s mother, a Shakespeare PhD, and the Irish wolfhound tried to eat it. Not one I’ve seen onstage, so I imagined Daniel Kaluuya as Othello and Gemma Arterton as Desdemona.

The Hound of Ulster, by Rosemary Sutcliff

A beautifully written retelling of the story of Cuchulain for children. I had only very vague ideas of the Irish myths before hand, so this was an education, and will be handy next time I try to read William Butler Yeats’s early poetry. Rather similar to the Iranian stories of Rostam in the Shanameh, the book focuses on a superhuman hero who kills his own son without learning his identity. Reading Sutcliff, however, is much easier than battling through Ferdowsi in translation.

Maigret, Lognon and the Gangsters, by Georges Simenon

A thriller rather than a detective novel, which is not quite what I want when I pick up a Maigret, but the Paris of the 1950s comes through vividly, and the French impressions of the American gangsters give the book an interesting viewpoint.

Life of Numa, by Plutarch

A biography of Rome’s almost mythological second King, the one who is credited with first bringing peace to the city state and instituting their religious practices. Like the biography of Lycurgus the Spartan it’s paired with, it’s less interesting for any insight into character than it is for customs, especially in the case of the Vestal Virgins, and the special priest-caste who had the responsibility of declaring war. It’s also amusing, as a recovering academic, to see Plutarch spend pages defending his thesis of Pythagoras’s influence on Numa, only to conclude that to spend much longer on this vexed issue would savour of youthful contentiousness.

Charmenides, by Plato

A brief inconclusive dialogue on wisdom or temperance (language barriers make the distinction confusing). Socrates is introduced to the beautiful youth, Charmenides, but instead of accepting his host’s invitation to look at him naked, he debates philosophy with him (only in Plato). Read online, in a Victorian translation that held up surprisingly well.

The High Deeds of Finn MacCool, by Rosemary Sutcliff

While reading The Hound of Ulster I never lost sight of the fact I was reading a high, gloomy myth cycle about the days when the great heroes bestrode Ireland like giants. With Finn MacCool, I relaxed, and started enjoying it the same way I enjoy a children’s fantasy like The Wizard of Earthsea. It helps that Finn is so much more human than Cuchulain, with his love for his hunting dogs and his first wife doing a lot to make him identifiable. Even when jealousy turns him against his friend Dearmid at the end, he’s still more engaging than the gloomy beserker of Ulster, and the stories that cluster around him are a stranger and more varied bunch, including the same origin story, regarding the salmon of knowledge, that the Welsh give to Taliesin.

Ion, by Plato

Socrates in dialogue with Ion, a vain and rather silly rhapsode (reciter of Homer) who he ties in rhetorical knots. Worth reading for its conception of the work of art as a magnetic chain: the Muse inspires the poet who inspires the performer who inspires the audience. The poet in me rather than the philosopher, however, wishes that Ion had put up more of a fight.

The Moon-Eyed People, by Peter Stevenson

A rather mixed bag of Welsh and American folk tales, with delightful illustrations. Reviewed for Wales Arts Review.

Mason and Dixon, by Thomas Pynchon

A 700+ page tome I read a few chapters at a time as the mood took me, like Les Miserables and some of Dickens. As an eighteenth centuryist, I caught a few of the obscure references in this rambling novel, but no doubt many others passed me by completely. The loose structure allows for charming digressions and excursions: a Samuel Johnson cameo, a mechanical duck that achieves consciousness, and most agreeably, a retelling of the story of the Lambton Worm, which I remember from my childhood. Of the Pynchon I’ve read, it’s more satisfying than Bleeding Edge, but less approachable than Inherent Vice.

Doctor Who: The Roundheads, by Mark Gatiss

Some find period scene setting, and Gatiss, who went on to write for the modern show, has a good grasp of how to write dialogue, run scenes in parallel, and end on a cliffhanger. In the end, though, this felt like a runaround without much substance behind it.

Nine Perfect Strangers, by Liane Moriarty

A 12 hour read, pacy and deeply enjoyable, with a little post-modern frisson in its later pages. One of the rare ones where the writer seems to be having as much fun as the reader.

Lives of Publicola and Timoleon, by Plutarch

Publicola drops you right into the middle of the aftermath of the rape of Lucrece, a period I vaguely know from Shakespeare, Macaulay and obscure Restoration tragedy. It would be hard to understand without that assumed background knowledge. Timoleon is from a period entirely unknown to me, but I caught up fast, and found the eviction of the tyrants and the restoration of democracy to Greek Sicily rather stirring.

Books I read this July

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Some good reading in the sunshine this month, as I worked my way through fourteen books, some of which were read in a hammock.

Byron: The Years of Fame, by Peter Quennell

The only people I’ve read more than one biography of are Samuel Johnson, John Milton and Lord Byron–and for all that Byron’s life was cut short at half the age of the two latter poets, his life is immeasurably greater in incident. Witness this charming Penguin paperback from the 1950s, which devotes 270 pages to the five years he spent in London between continental trips.

The book suffers a little from the limitations of its era–Lord B’s bisexuality is barely explored and the author sometimes gives him the benefit of the doubt where he really doesn’t deserve it. It’s impossible to write a boring book about Byron, however and the poet’s meteoric trajectory from prickly outsider to literary celebrity, from Don Juan to Bluebeard, from socialite to exile, is grippingly traced. Byron himself never writes a dull word. I particularly like his put down of a society beauty: ‘Her figure, though genteel, was too thin to be good, and wanted that roundness which elegance would vainly supply.

Ficciones, by Jorge Luis Borges

Many of these I’ve read before–starting with ‘Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote’, which I ploughed through in my early teens because Douglas Adams told me to. Their cleverness can be exhausting in the aggregate; if Samuel Johnson accused Milton of looking at nature through the spectacles of books, Borges looks at books through the spectacles of books through the spectacles of yet more books!

One of the delights of this reread is that I’ve caught up with the master, and can cast a knowing eye over his references and even catch him out where he fudges the plot of Attar’s poem The Conference of the Birds.

Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham, by Doris Kearns Goodwin

Feeling a sudden appetite for a long, dense Dad book, I devoured this 750 page doorstop. I found myself surprising exercised by the arrogance and constant procrastination of General McClellan, and relishing it whenever Lincoln would digress into storytelling. Following Lincoln’s rivals for the presidential nomination into his cabinet means we follow four protagonists over decades–the events of Spielberg’s film Lincoln take up about 4 pages! Huge in scale and ambition, you feel a genuine pang when Lincoln is shot and Seward stabbed.

The Unexplored Ocean, by Catherine Fisher

Found this in the library, to follow on from The Bramble King last month. Recognised a handful of poems from anthologies. Enjoyed the title sequence, but preferred Bramble King overall, where the themes and sequences seemed tighter and better formed.

Sonnets, by Cecco Angiolieri, trans C.H. Scott and Anthony Mortimer

I’m a fan of Mortimer’s translations, and this collection of 130 sonnets by the black sheep of the age of Dante preserves form and metre faultlessly, together with a rowdy sense of humour. It’s not as infectious or compelling as Mortimer’s translation of Villon’s Testament, but that’s a difference in the original authors, not a lapse in the translator’s craft.

61 hours, by Lee Child

A swift punchy Jack Reacher novel to follow Team of Rivals. I like the small town Reacher novels best, and this one has him in a South Dakota winter, which is a whole new element to fight. The bad guy is satisfyingly evil, and it ends on an effective cliffhanger. Of course, I know Reacher survives, because I’ve already read the fourth book on from this one.

Pale Fire, by Vladimir Nabokov

Lolita is the one everyone raves about, but I liked this a great deal more. Imaginatively constructed as a poem and commentary that tell wildly different stories. Hugely entertaining and amusing. Thought, however, that the proposed alternative solution–that the commentator is mad–was a sop thrown to the kind of dreary critics who can’t suspend disbelief for anything.

Reflections on Writing, by Diana Wynn Jones

An essay collection by a children’s author I never got into at the right age, but am thinking of seeking out. The same old anecdotes recur, as is inevitable in a collection of pieces, but there’s usually a new phrase or detail in them, and the advice on writing is cogent, helpful and nowhere near as repetitive as Terry Pratchett’s in A Slip of the Keyboard. My favourite parts were her memories of being taught by Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, her superbly funny memory of what must have been a difficult childhood, and the transcript of a radio talk by her son, which helps put the whole book into perspective and makes sure the sympathy’s not wholly on her side.

Half a War, by Joe Abercrombie

I’ve waited so long for this book to hit the library! The third and probably my least favourite of the trilogy, but largely because the set-pieces in the last two books were so thrilling, and this one, for all of its battles and stratagems, has nothing to rival them. The characters are still just as intriguing, however. Yarvi, the unlikely hero of Half a King, warped by the years into a Machiavellian manipulator as cruel as the power he seeks to supplant; rough-edged Thorn Batthu, the female warrior of Half the World; and the new pair, Raith, a beserker, and Skara, thrust into the role of Queen. Pacy read, making good use of multiple perspectives.

Afternoons Go Nowhere, by Sheenagh Pugh

Wry and wide-ranging poetry collection, reviewed for Wales Arts Review.

Once Upon A Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale, by Marina Warner

A deeply read history of fairy tale collections: Grimm, Perrault, Hans Christian Anderson, the Arabian Nights, and separate chapters dedicated to psychological and feminist response. Interesting, but somewhat dry and rather a chore–and it gets tiring being bombarded with references to books one hasn’t read and films one hasn’t seen, even if familiar figures like Angela Carter do occasionally pop up. Closest thing to an academic book I’ve read since my Viva!

American Supernatural Tales, ed. S.T. Joshi

I skipped the House of Usher and Cthulu as overfamiliar. The immediately post-war era was a particular favourite of mine–enjoyed Clark Ashton-Smith’s Martian grave ghouls, Robert Bloch (of Psycho fame) doing a Faustian pact story, and Fritz Leiber (who I mainly know from fantasy) writing a vampire supermodel who, I think, inspired a Neil Gaiman story. My interest wanes a little in the post-modern reference and stylistic pyrotechnics towards the end of the book, but Ligotti and McKielan produce a good shudder. Joshi is good on the changing dynamics of the publishing industry, but rather snobbish towards Stephen King, whose genre claims he artificially weakens by selecting ‘Night Surf’, a forgettable dry-run for The Stand, rather than the genuine pulpy thrills of something like ‘The Mangler’.

On Watching a Lemon Sail the Sea, by Maggie Harris

This book was sent to me by a woman who liked my review of The Bramble King. The deliberately eccentric title heralds a collection interested in the unlikely juxtapostions of Harris’s Guyanese-British heritage. The mood throughout is lyrical and overflowing with colours and tastes, leaning towards long lines that droop off the pages of even this squarish book. I like the way the Guyanese poems use a dialect not present anywhere else in the word, and the relationship with the inanimate in ecstatic apostrophes and personifications. The third person poems where the person described is clearly the poet herself strike me as rather arch; better is the Yeatsian title of ‘Daphne laments her coming of age’ with its rueful beginning ‘We are no longer friends, my body and I.’

Selected Prose, by Sir Thomas Browne

I found myself avid for more Browne after the brief excerpts from In Search of Sir Thomas Browne last month, and thankfully this Carcanet anthology, bought purely out of love for Carcanet anthologies, was already on the shelf. Broken into thematic chunks, it’s more suitable for browsing than reading through, except for the central chunk, which produces Browne’s most famous prose piece, Urn Burial, in full. Gorgeously ornate in his musings on mortality, his scientific writings on biology are also entertaining for their insight into the 17th century world, and the sheer charm of his descriptions. I revived the contemporary habit of leaving a manicule in the margin of sections I found particularly arresting.

Writing a High Fantasy Ballad

the_fortress_unvanquishable3Many stories aspire to the condition of ballads, to the roots of folk storytelling. After reinventing myself as a writer of pirate ballads, I decided to go in search of one such story, preferably out of copright, in order to test my ballad-mongering craftsmanship.

I alit on ‘The Fortress Unvanquishable Save For Sacnoth’ by Lord Dunsay, freshly republished in a Penguin anthology of his shorter works. Dunsany, an Irish peer, belongs to the tradition of pre-Tolkien fantasy before it calved off into a whole genre. He had a prickly relationship with the Irish Literary Revival–a less than effusive introduction by W.B. Yeats makes it pretty clear that the future Nobel Prize winner hated his guts–but there was a strong public following for his plays, short stories and novels, the best of which are still in print.

Fortress is a simple tale, yet an eerie one. It tells how the villagers of Allathurion become plagued by nightmares, which the village mage determines to be the work of the evil wizard Gaznak. The only way for these nightmares to cease is for the Lord’s son, Leothric, to slay Tharagaverug, the metal crocodile, and forge from its spine the legendary sword Sacnoth. Only then will he be able to force an entrance to Gaznak’s fortress and face the wizard in single combat.

Appropriately for a story about the vanquishing of nightmares, ‘Fortress’ leans towards the nightmarish and dreamlike rather than Tolkien’s grounded worldbuilding or Lewis’s homely anthropomorphism. There maybe something silly about naming a dragon Wong Bongerok or a metal crocodile Tharagaverug, but Dunsany deploys the names carefully, using them to heighten the rich, melodious rhythm of his prose. Leothric and the sword Sacnoth have about the same depth of characterisation between them, but as in many fairy tales or stories from the Arabian Nights, the emphasis is not on the hero but on the strange and terrible marvels he encounters. Fantasy here is the last true refuge of the tall tale, and it ends with the frame story itself merging into the doubtful realm of dream, with the possibility that the defeat of the nightmare wizard was itself a long and terrible nightmare.

This is the tale of the vanquishing of The Fortress Unvanquishable, Save For Sacnoth, and of its passing away, as it is told and believed by those who love the mystic days of old.

Others have said, and vainly claim to prove, that a fever came to Allathurion, and went away; and that this same fever drove Leothric into the marshes by night, and made him dream there and act violently with a sword. And others again say that there hath been no town of Allathurion, and that Leothric never lived.

Peace to them. The gardener hath gathered up this autumn’s leaves. Who shall see them again, or who wot of them? And who shall say what hath befallen in the days of long ago?

It’s also, I feel, an invitation to future adaptors, which is partly why the concluding verse were among the first parts of the ballad I wrote, not knowing I would spend months inching towards them, verse by verse.

Alas, it seems all splendid dreams
in morning light must fade.
The sweetest songs must have an end,
like this ballad I have made
of The Fortress Unvanquishable
Except Through Sacnoth’s Blade.

Yet fair things gone do linger on
as phantoms of delight
to charm away the dullest day;
sweet be your dreams this night.

I wanted, in my retelling, to capture the quality of a healthy bed-time story–something that thrills and scares but ultimately sends you to sleep reassured. I had in mind G.K. Chesterton’s words, “Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.” And so I set to work.

Many of Dunsany’s grace notes and side-details are an absolute gift to the versifier. The village-mage’s spell, for example, ‘had in it the word wherewith the people of the plains are wont to curse their camels, and the shout wherewith the whalers of the north lure the whales shoreward to be killed, and a word that causes elephants to trumpet; and every one of the forty lines closed with a rhyme for “wasp.”‘ I followed this description closely, with a ‘rasp / grasp / wasp’ off-rhyme had often qets a chuckle in my recitations. On the other hand, I thought some of his structure could use a little polish and rearrangement. In the first part of the story, the mage tells Leothric exactly what he must do to kill Tharagaverug, and Leothric goes off and does it like someone ticking off a to-do list. I decided to split the exposition between the village mage and an old man at the gate of the marsh people’s village, which had the multiple advantages of giving the poem a different voice, and giving the marsh people a modicum of agency in their own deliverance. Likewise, once inside the castle, I decided to reorder events to follow a more allegorical scheme: before he can confront Gaznak, Leothric is threatened first by an ambush of naked power, then by his feudal overlords, by a giant spider who represents fatalism and depression and finally by a vast abyss. My castle descends more slowly into the surreal that Dunsay’s original, where elephants flee trumpeting the moment Leothric forces and entrance. I also cut, with a twinge, the ball-room full of beautiful women who turn out to be Gaznak’s fever dreams. There were some lovely details, such as the wolves gnawing at the wainscot and the flames flickering in the sockets of their eyes, but I was determined to keep the episodes from overwhelming the forward thrust of the poem as a whole, and the seducing temptress angle seemed a little overtired.

In the final duel with Gaznak, I faced the age-old problem of making a sword-fight interesting on the page, but as Dunsany had already done it in prose, it wasn’t too difficult to pull off in verse. The traditional motif of the wizard’s castle dissolving into air after his death was satisfying to perform.

Sacnoth laid all his magic waste
and sundered every spell
and with a sound to rival all
the screaming choirs of Hell
in ruin unimaginable
the vanquished fortress fell.

RUIN UNIMAGINABLE!!! would probably be a more accurate representation of the way I bellow it out.

When the last rhyme was honed and the last verse polished, I had the longest poem I’d ever written: 575 lines and 132 stanzas, across two separate parts. The poem had taught me how to merge versifying with storytelling, bringing the much slighted arts of narrative back into the rhythms and images of verse. For me, composing and revising a poem is synonymous with memorising it, so I also had a half-hour long performance piece, and I’ve taken my staff and sword to venues across Cardiff and the valleys to tell me tale of dreams and magic, giant spiders and metal crocodiles. It’s a story now lodged in my head until the day I die, which is the best tribute I can offer to Lord Dunsany, that grand pioneer of fantastic fiction.

A Sestina for the Huntington

Something I wrote for the AHRC about my time in Los Angeles studying at the Huntington Library, and the poem that came out of it.

Research beyond borders

In this latest Guest Blog, Thomas Tyrrell talks about his experience of the AHRC International Placement Scheme, and ultimately, his “Sestina for the Huntington”.

On my first day at the Huntington Library,Los Angeles, I was allocated a shelf for my books beneath a bust of Lord Byron. Madly jet-lagged but wide-eyed and vibrating on American coffee, I was here on the AHRC international placement scheme, which gives British PhD students the chance to travel abroad and access collections they couldn’t reach on their own budgets.

A bust of George Gordon, Lord Byron, from the Ahrmanson Reading Room in the Munger Research Centre - Photo Credit Thomas Tyrrell A bust of George Gordon, Lord Byron, from the Ahrmanson Reading Room in the Munger Research Centre – Photo Credit Thomas Tyrrell

After a previous fellowship at the Chawton House Library, Hampshire, I had thanked my hosts with a country house poem. Suitably inspired by Byron, I set myself the challenge of writing a poem for the Huntington

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Elegy of the Anglo-Saxon Cyclist

Every cycle tour has a nightmare day. On my first tour it was Day 2, the short leg between Bristol and Bath midway through my journey from my university at Cardiff to my parent’s house in Winchester. The rain poured down unrelentingly as I slogged along the old railway track between the two cities, the first bike path of a national network that now threads through most of the country.

I had spent the last couple of weeks on my sofa revising Old English adjectives for an exam, testing how well I could understand and translate the language of Beowulf and King Alfred. One of the key texts had been ‘The Seafarer’s Elegy’ a long and mournful poem where a sailor laments that the weather is awful, the ship comfortless, his feet are ‘forste gebunden’ or fettered by frost, and everyone on land is having a much nicer time.

As the rain dripped off my nose and my shorts reached saturation point, I wondered what ‘The Cyclist’s Elegy’ would sound like.

I decided it would sound pretty much like this.

https://soundcloud.com/user998852738/elegy-of-the-anglo-saxon-cyclist

I will tell my story, such as it is,
A short and a soggy one. At cease of exams,
I undertook a taxing journey,
A cycle trip from Cardiff home.
I disregarded railway lines,
Trams, taxis and all transport links,
And through the force of thighs and calves
I made my way through Wales and England
To Hampshire and home. Hardly he guesses,
For whom the miles pass unremarked,
Cocooned in cars, comfortable dwellings
Away from the wet, how the weary cyclist,
Remains by the roadside. Rain never ended;
A daylong drizzle, drenching and cold,
Soaks into my shorts; sagging tyres,
Flat and deflated, force me to spend
Aggravating hours, alone in the rain,
Patching the puncture. Appalling weather,
The bane of the British, brings no relief.
My ankles ache with every motion,
Chainwheel and sprocket clank and groan,
And hunger harries the heart of the engine.
And yet, in the morning, I yearn to continue,
To take to the saddle, sore as I am,
Put foot to the pedals and push myself onwards.

While his bike is whole and sturdy
The cyclist is unstoppable,
An entire engine in himself.
And come the crash, when his bicycle hurls him
Headlong over the handlebars
To a painful impact, plastered in mud,
Face down in the dirt, his dignity gone,
His body bruised and bloody-kneed,
Still he will stride on, stronger than ever,
Firm in his frame, a fearless traveller,
Dreadless, undaunted. Durable men
Will live to outlast the little systems
Constructed to keep them. The cyclist knows
When after all this he arrives at his doorstep
Bloody, mud-splattered and spent with exertion,
His is a hero’s homecoming.

Thanks to everyone at the Cycle Touring Festival at Clitheroe, whose enthusiasm and kind remarks at the open mic night inspired me to put this post up.

And full credit to Ezra Pound, whose unique performance of his 1911 translation has been the inspiration for my own strange growlings.