Books I read this April

What a strange month this has been, and not just because of the global pandemic. My first poetry collection came out at the very beginning of the month, but because of the jammed lines of supply, people are only just getting their copies now. I’ve only just had my first review.

In the meantime I’ve read sixteen novels and poems, seeking escape and reassurance in these times largely through detective fiction and medieval romances. A lot of people are reporting that they are finding it difficult to settle to a book. At the moment, I’m having more trouble in getting my nose out of one.

Mr Midshipman Easy, by Captain Frederick Marryat

An early naval novel, published 1836–a forerunner of Forester and O’Brian by someone who had actually fought in the navy they describe. As such, it’s an interesting link between the Georgian picaresque novel and the historical fiction for which it will serve as pattern. I imagine it must have seemed rather old-fashioned even in its day–the asides where the narrator breaks off the tale to recommend proposed reforms to the Admiralty are part of the dated charm. If it’s fallen out of the canon since that days of its fame, that’s probably because it’s pretty High Tory even for 1836, with a large part of the novel spent ridiculing the notions of equality and the rights of man in the mode of Hannah More.

Vile Bodies, by Evelyn Waugh

Bittersweet yet utterly hilarious, that curious blended tone that only Waugh can get quite right. Apparently the author would later scorn it as a novel he tossed off over a period of a few months, but the relatively loose plotting allows for a great variety of characters and episodes to be tossed in as the author likes, making for a vivid satirical panorama of 20s life among the Bright Young Things. It would be even more enjoyable if Penguin Modern Classics hadn’t saddled this edition with an editorial martinet. Unneeded additions include a 7 page note on the text and wearisome footnotes arguing the merits of ‘definitely’ versus ‘definitively’.

Lay le Freine in Middle English Verse Romances, ed. Donald B. Sands

This is just the thing for sunny April reading–an English version of a Breton lai, full of folk tale motifs and told in breezy tetrameter couplets. The lyric has now been so totally accepted as the raison d’etre of poetry that it’s a scandalous delight to read poetry with no other end than storytelling. It would be a hard task too to recapture the storyteller’s voice in this metre without sounding archaic or glib–though Tolkien has managed it in some beautiful passages of his Lay of Luthien. Our tale is of a spiteful wife who, on learning that a friend’s wife has given birth to twins, spreads the rumour that this is because she slept with two different men. Promptly she becomes pregnant with twins herself. In a fit of shame, she decides to send one off to a nunnery in secret, with various tokens of recognition that will come in handy in later years. A delightful folk tale read.

Pearl, in The Works of the Gawain Poet, ed. Ad Putter and Myra Stokes

At the other end of the scale of complexity in Middle English literature from Lay le Freine is Pearl, a tour-de-force of dazzling formal complexity incorporating rhyme, alliteration and repitition in 101 twelve-line stanzas. Yet the result is not icily perfect but wistfully human in its account of a father’s mourning for his lost daughter. When he meets her again in a dream-vision, the rather chilly Christian theology she expounds is given infinite pathos through this. Not my preferred edition, nice as it is to have all the works of the Gawain Poet in one volume: this has footnotes, endnotes and a glossary, and tricky cruxes can involve consulting all three. Makes me miss my textually cluttered but much more servicable Everyman edition.

Sir Orfeo, in Middle English Verse Romances

Another medieval verse tale for a sunny April. This retells Orpheus and Eurydice as a Celtic Fairy Story where Queen Herodice is abducted by the fairies rather than killed, and Sir Orfeo rescues her properly instead of looking back at the last moment. It’s plainly and beautifully told, apparent artlessness hiding great artistry, and a shining example of what would now doubtless be called cultural appropriation. How dare these medieval minstrels give Orpheus and Eurydice a happy ending!

Whose Body, by Dorothy L Sayers

Given that her sleuth is a titled aristocrat, I always forget how modernist Sayers is as a stylist. This, her first novel, is already confident and experimental, with a few passages where she lapses into the second person for effect. Being allergic to the second person in novels, this would normally bring me out in hives, but it’s sparse enough not to irritate me too much. There’s a good locked room mystery set up, but not enough red herrings, so that when the murderer finally makes his entrance it’s immediately obvious he’s the only character with sufficient presence to pull it off. Credit to Sayers, she realises this and has her sleuth intuitively grasp the solution next chapter, so the rest of the book becomes a howdunnit rather than a whodunnit. Would be a good escapist read if the coroner didn’t grouse about an unventilated room being a death trap, with the influenza abroad again.

King Horn, in Middle English Verse Romances

Given this is one of the very earliest English romances, from 1225 or thereabouts, it’s a surprisingly easy read, mostly due to the simple language, short lines and regular couplets. It won’t win any prizes for artistry and it’s unmistakably the rough prototype of a tradition in development, but the story it tells is abundant in folk-motifs. King Horn has his land stolen from him by the Saracens, and has to win friends and make alliances to regain it. Mostly I feel sorry for Rymenhild, a princess who Horn promises to marry, then fobs off with flimsy excuses for nearly a decade. First he must be made a knight, then he needs to win his spurs in battle, then he’s wrongfully accused and goes into self-imposed exile for seven (wildly unnecessary) years, then he sneaks back disguised as a beggar and convinces her he’s dead just to watch her reaction, then he decides he can’t be married to her until he’s won his original kingdom back from the Saracens. So he buggers off, leaving her in the charge of one of his cousins, who promptly pulls a Mordred and tries to marry Rymenhild for himself. Only after he’s conquered his old realm and put down the rebellion at home does King Horn finally get round to marrying Rymenhild, who has nothing to do in the meantime but lament, with intervals of swooning.

We Could Be Anywhere By Now, by Katherine Stansfield

A collection of occasional verses, dealing with themes of language and the Celtic inheritance. Reviewed for Wales Arts Review.

Wise Children, by Angela Carter

Her final novel, and I think her most confident–there’s a splendid sense here of letting it all go. Dialogue no longer intimidates her; showing off her theoretical reading isn’t a concern; a plot that involves so much tangled consanguinity that you’d need a chart to explain it is handled with confidence and ease. I like reading books where it seems the author is having almost as much fun as the reader, and with this one you can almost hear Carter cackling to herself as the keys click and rattle.

Gamelyn, in Middle English Verse Romances

This is a little story with a bright future–in the Renaissance, it gets adapted into Thomas Lodge’s nigh unreadable prose romance Rosalynde, then into Shakespeare’s As You Like It. Both are highly sophisticated elaborations on an earthy English tale where Gamelyn gets all his land stolen by his wicked older brother and goes around thumping people until he gets it back. A lot of people–monks, abbots, wrestlers, crooked judges–are thumped in this poem. At one point, Gamelyn goes off to live in the forest as an outlaw, which leads some scholars to think of him as a Robin Hood figure. Robin, though, was always craftier: Gamelyn’s idea of cunning doesn’t go much further than nipping out the back door while the baddies are waiting at the front. A rough vigorous metre gives texture to a rough vigorous folk tale.

Empires of the Sea: The Final Battle for the Mediterranean 1521-1580, by Roger Crowley

Lepanto for me was a name in a bad poem by G.K. Chesterton, so this book was an education in the savage clash of scimitar and sword as the Ottoman Empire battles Christendom for control of the mediterranean sea. There’s material here for half-a-dozen epic poems, blood, sunlight, steel, and the kind of slaughter Europe won’t see again until World War One. It comes to life so vividly and immediately in Crowley’s telling that it’s strange to recall that other parts of Europe had other priorities. Henry VIII was abolishing monasteries and going through wives like a dose of salts, Protestantism was sweeping the north, and all the while the Mediterranean is going through one of the final chapters of the Crusades.

The Phoenician Women, by Euripides, trans. Elizabeth Wyckoff

This is what happens when you try and compress a trilogy’s worth of Theban Cycle material into one play. There are characters and situations from Seven Against Thebes, Oedipus, Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone, but there’s no main character or main action–figures vaguely familiar from other plays just come on and go off again. Even accounting for the fact that other writers have botched it about since Euripides wrote it, it’s still a defiantly non-Aristotelian muddle. A lucid blank verse translation that picks up and gets speedier after the first 500 lines.

A Mysterious Affair of Style, by Gilbert Adair

Just the pick-me-up I needed on the downslope of a quarantine mood swing. A delightfully silly postmodern murder mystery, with whodunnit author Evadne Mount as the sleuth. The pleasures of the on-set mystery here are almost secondary to the pleasure of the in-jokes–my favourite being that Mount’s deadly rival, Agatha Christie, is having one of her books, Ten Little Whatsits, filmed on an adjacent soundstage. It struck me in reading that the Agatha Christie book everyone should read at the moment is The Mirror Crack’d, but you can’t say why without spoiling the mystery.

Cleanness, in The Works of the Gawain Poet

A highly polished alliterative poem, celebrating the virtue of cleanliness through the cautionary Bible tales of Noah’s Ark, Sodom and Gomorrah and Belshazzar’s Feast. These are consciously set-piece, high wrought demonstrations of poetic skill, while in romances like Sir Orfeo the level of artistry is much more continuous. They’re thrilling but rather exhausting, and the piecemeal annotations don’t help a lot. There’s an interesting idea in here of a clean-freak deity, who will punish pride with cool deliberation but only really gets worked up by uncleanliness and profaneness–theologically dubious but an interesting mindset nonetheless.

Novels, Tales, Journeys: The Complete Prose, by Alexander Pushkin, trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky

I adore Pushkin, and this one volume collection of the complete prose is going to sit well beside my editions of Eugene Onegin and the Selected Poems, also out this month in Penguin. It should properly be called ‘Novel, Tales, Journey’ as there’s only one novella and one travelogue in here, but the stories and fragments are so terse and so entertaining, even when they break off only partway finished, that you can always flick through looking for something to amuse. I read it piecemeal rather than cover to cover, but enjoyed it immensely.

The Act of Roger Murgatroyd, by Gilbert Adair

Having started with the second book of the trilogy, I thought I’d go back and read the first, many times referred to but never actually spoiled. It was a slight let down–while the second was delightfully silly all the way through, there’s a certain quality of stodge to the first two hundred pages of Agatha Christie pastiche in this one. It’s only with the totally bananas final chapter twist that the book truly brought a smile to my face.

Waterlog 5: Holy Isle, Scotland

WaterlogThe seasonality of wild swimming is an organising theme of Roger Deakin’s Waterlog, which begins in April in the Scilly Isles, and climaxes with a Christmas Day plunge into the North Sea. If I haven’t been quite so adventurous as to keep my wild swimming habits up in the depths of the English winter (I gave up in November), at least my season opener, a fortnight earlier than Deakin’s plunge, and in the far north of the country, has a certain daring to it.

Holy Isle, Scotland

I rose from my sleeping bag on our second morning of camping out, feeling greasy and hungover, and smelling strongly of BO and woodsmoke. Our campsite  had no showers, and offered little to do after dark but build enormous campfires and drink heavily. We were on the Isle of Arran, just off the west coast of Scotland. It had made the news a fortnight ago by suffering snowstorms so severe that the north end of the island had been virtually buried, and all power from the mainland broken off. When we arrived, the snows were gone save from the tops of the very highest peaks, and the sole memory of that week were the great rectangular generators, lined up on trucks all down the Brodick seafront, and still visible down many a highway and byway throughout the island. We had some fears that the islanders might have resorted to cannibalism, but it turns out that when face with the breakdown of civilisation, they had done the British thing, and retired to the pub to play board games.

Even in the absence of snow, the morning was remarkably chilly, and I pulled on every scrap of clothing I had as I went about the morning chores of making skillet and filling my water bottle. A thin, chill mist hung over everything, blurring the peaks that had been pin-sharp yesterday, and making the sunlight fall weak and watery on our faces. The decision was made to go for a walk on Holy Isle, just off the coast of Arran, once the hermitage of a Celtic Saint and now the location of a successful Buddhist retreat. Half the island is a nature reserve, and some of it is devoted to a group of reclusive nuns who’ve retired from the world for the next four years, but there’s still plenty of scope for a hike up the island’s sole mountain, Mullach Mor, and a walk back along the seashore.

ArranThe island was an odd place, with bright, wind-ragged Buddhist banners flying high above the heather, and hardy brown Asian sheep, with great curved horns, browsing on the thin winter grass. As we reached the top of the mountain it became clear that the chill morning mist had somehow turned to baking noon haze, without thinning or thickening or altering in the slightest. The mainland was completely cordoned off from the eye, and the isle was covered in a luminous, Celtic Twilight atmosphere that photos don’t really do justice to. Temperatures were reaching 18 degree highs, and all the softshells and banded jackets we’d donned that morning were being stuffed back into our groaning daysacks.

Cooling off slightly, we came down to the shore, where some split off to wander into the caves, others to admire the beautiful Stevenson lighthouse, and still others to skim stones skillfully across the water. I decided to paddle – but paddling is an art I’ve never quite mastered. Somehow, I always seem to end up going swimming – and even when I don’t, I still get damp shorts. In this case, I waded in and splashed my face for a bit, and then thought ‘Hell with it’ and took the plunge.

in the seaThe agony and the ecstasy of the water was almost sexual in its intensity. I drifted out from shore on my back, hyperventilating mildly from the cold shock, while my friends on shore waved and cheered. It felt like I was undergoing a whole body attack of pins and needles. Every drop of blood beneath my skin had decided there was somewhere else it would much rather be, and fled back to my core. A deep and purifying cold was scouring the sweat and woodsmoke from me.

I rolled over onto my front and executed four strong strokes towards Arran, with swiftly numbing limbs; then thought the better of it, turned again, and struck out for the shore. I had swum almost a mile in the sea off Mallorca a week ago – but that had been the warm Mediterranean, and I’d still emerged shivering and blue around the edges. Outside of a wetsuit, this was not a sea in which you would want to spend a lot of your time. As I emerged and began to towel some feeling back into my limbs, I had the pleasant experience of seeing my friends cautiously dipping their feet into the water, and jerking back with pained expressions. And so a new year of wild swimming begins!