No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

2012/37: Dracula -- Bram Stoker

... he is not free. Nay, he is even more prisoner than the slave of the galley, than the madman in his cell. He cannot go where he lists, he who is not of nature has yet to obey some of nature’s laws ... [Chapter 18]
Read for the Coursera Fantasy and SF course (week 3).

I'm not sure I'd ever read Dracula from start to finish: I was surprised that the pacing was so slow (except in the final chapter where it's frenetic), and the revelations so gradual.

There's a lot to think about in this novel: Van Helsing's attempts at the scientific method (he doesn't share his thought processes with his colleagues); the culture of bribery which prevails in Eastern Europe, and why this is different to the profligacy with which Harker et al distribute beer money to the British working class; railway timetables, and whether the trains in England were really so very much more reliable than those abroad; how Mina internalises the cultural consensus on the inferiority of women, even though she's clearly smarter than most (if not all) of the men in the novel; sources of income for the middle-class Harkers (primarily the legacy from Hawkins, one presumes, and the largesse of Lord Godalming); why Lucy is so very irresistible to men.

My Coursera essay (below) started life as a discussion of the Count's attraction to Lucy. (Perhaps she reminded him of Vampire Bride #1, who is also described as blonde and blue-eyed: on the other hand, apparently death alters the colour of Lucy's hair, as the figure they 'recognise' as Lucy in the Hampstead graveyard is dark-haired.) But then I came up with a hypothesis that seemed to answer a frequently-asked question on the course forum ("Why did Dracula go to Whitby in particular?"), and was surprised not to find any discussion of it online.

The plot of Dracula is driven by Count Dracula's decision to leave Transylvania and establish himself in England. "I long to go through the crowded streets of your mighty London," he tells Jonathan Harker. Yet, although Dracula has purchased a house in Purfleet, east of London, his first landfall in England is hundreds of miles away at Whitby. The correspondence of Dracula's solicitors, the highlighting of Whitby in Dracula's atlas, and the log of the Demeter, all indicate that Whitby was always his intended port of arrival.

Dracula's presence in Whitby is essential to the novel's plot. It is there that he meets Lucy Westenra, and drinks her blood. Lucy's ensuing 'illness' causes Dr Seward to seek the help of Van Helsing, whose knowledge of vampires enables him to deduce Dracula's nature. Yet no reason for Dracula's arrival in Whitby is ever stated. It could be an attempt to draw attention away from his London estate. Another possibility is that Whitby, though not a major port, seems a good destination for the crates of earth that the Count ships from Transylvania.

However, it is probable that Dracula has read about Whitby churchyard, where "part of the bank has fallen away, and some of the graves have been destroyed". Of the remaining graves, "in nigh half of them there bean’t no bodies at all". Dracula's research materials include newspapers, so he may also have read an account of the suicide and burial of George Canon. Van Helsing's description of Dracula's "earth-home... the place unhallowed, as we saw when he went to the grave of the suicide at Whitby" clarifies the significance of the latter: a suicide's grave is not holy ground. Dracula chooses Whitby because he is confident of finding refuge near the port, whether in an empty or an unhallowed grave.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

2012/36: Sharps -- K J Parker

There was no defence. If you tried to block, you needed both hands; you'd mutilate yourself for life, and you could only do it once. So: no defence. Instead there was attacking and avoiding, ideally at the same time, so that in escaping your opponent's attack, you formed and forwarded your own. That, he realised was the difference, and the reason why he'd done so badly at Joiauz. You couldn't just endure. It was pure aggression. "Welcome to the messer," Suidas said, as they halted to catch their breath. "You can't protect yourself. Your only way out is to kill the other man." [location 2689]

Permia and Scheria have been at war, on and off, for years. At the opening of Sharps an uneasy peace prevails, not least because a Scherian general (codename: the Irrigator) drowned an entire Permian city. Now, forty years later, the two countries -- both plagued by economic recession, civil unrest, and religious extremism -- maintain a cold-war policy of mutual, begrudging tolerance.

Let the Games begin!

Four skilled individuals are chosen to make up a Scherian fencing team, which will tour Permia and pave the way for the resumption of diplomatic relations. Not that they actually have to do any diplomacy themselves, which is probably for the best... Phrantzes, the team's manager, is a ageing fencing champion; Suidas is a veteran of the wars, suffering from PTSD and self-medicating with alcohol; Giraut got caught with a senator's daughter, and ended up killing the senator; Iseutz, the sole woman on the team, has flatly refused to marry; and Addo, perhaps the most skilled fencer of them all, happens to be the son of the Irrigator. Oh, and there's Yvo Tzimisces, the political officer, who might've stepped straight out of a Le Carre novel. (Tzimisces is my favourite character. He has class.)

They're all very popular in Permia (Parker's depiction of fencer fandom is delicious): but they're expected to fight with messers, rather than rapiers. The messer is basically a large knife, designed to inflict maximum damage: a far cry from the buttoned foils and blunted longswords of competitive swordplay. ("It's like ten centuries of scientific fencing hadn't happened," says Suidas sadly. [loc. 2701]) The messer is also a metaphor, hence the novel's title (and the excerpt above). They're fighting with sharps, no holds barred: and the opponent isn't necessarily the other fencer, or a Permian, or an enemy.

And, as though there weren't already sufficient ingredients for disaster, it turns out that someone on the team has an extra page to their agenda. This agenda may include assassination, treachery or vengeance: or, of course, all of the above.

Parker's earlier novels / trilogies tended to focus on a single protagonist. The Engineer trilogy had several protagonists, whose stories wove together to further the broader plot. Sharps, by contrast, has an ensemble cast: five individuals who are constantly interacting, share an apparent goal and have similar cultural backgrounds. (Several of them are also connected by the 'folly pillar, complete with a lavishly paid pretend stylite to sit on top of it' [loc. 1915], purchased by one of Addo's ancestors.) The fact that none of them can be trusted as narrators, viewpoint characters or even sportsmen is beside the point: the relationships that form and fracture reveal motives and feelings that are otherwise unexplored.

As usual with Parker's novels, Sharps is darkly humorous, intricately plotted, and full of surprises. There's less of the obfuscation-by-pronoun; the women get a better deal (though there is still at least one nagging wife too many); nobody gets turned into a weapon, though to be fair most of them are weapons already, one way or another. And there's no magic: this is not so much a sword'n'sorcery novel as sword'n'spying.

Incidentally, Sharps is set in the same world as The Folding Knife and the Engineer trilogy: there are mentions of the Aram Chantat, the Invincible Sun and the Mezentine Empire. However, it's clearly later in the history of that world: Scheria and Permia have an eighteenth-century feel, though I might have been misled by the props.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

2012/35: Red Shift -- Alan Garner

Face was moving in a different time. He knew Macey, but talked to other people, things. He spoke, but in all the words of Rome and the tribes. He seemed to be happy, and for Macey it was the only shield.
"I am well I hope you are can fight now you I. Why come not on Mow Cop yet all please but every not worry. I want know now all see same sky now soon.
... Face's words closed without end. (p. 118)
When I first read Red Shift (I was probably about 14) I was far too young to understand most of it. There are certain sections I recall vividly -- Cross Tracks, the whisky, the fossil in the fireplace, Tom's a-cold -- and sections that I'd completely lost. I didn't remember the Civil War passages at all. I didn't recall that the Romans were the remnants of the Ninth. And I didn't make the connections between the three pairs of protagonists: Macey and the unnamed priestess/goddess, Thomas Rowley and Margery, Tom and Jan.

I did recognise, I think, that despite the different historical periods, the events of the book took place in the same place, and that certain perceptions were shared across time: Tom smashing the window, the blue-silver-red train. I think I knew that the link was connected with the votive axe -- a weapon of murder in Macey's hands, a protection against lightning for Thomas and Madge, a shared memory (and later a symbol of betrayal) for Tom and Jan. The axe is real in a way that few things are.

On rereading, I'm glad I didn't realise just how bleak and bitter a novel it is. Beautifully constructed, beautiful spare language, dialogue sharp enough to cut: but it's a grim tale of rape and murder, cruelty and betrayal, and the endings are more peaceful (as in the cessation of conflict) than actually happy. Each woman is pregnant; two of them (at least: I still can't parse the scene on the church roof) have been raped; all the protagonists find their sanctuaries violated. And yet they hold on.

Red Shift is more compelling than enjoyable: it's too deep and too layered for mere enjoyment. It's not all doom and gloom: I like the camaraderie of the Romans, holed up in enemy territory, and the way Garner writes Latin as American military-speak: "'He was a member of the Imperial Roman Army, engaged in putting down insurgents.' 'I don't care what he was doing in Latin...' (p. 86) I like the sense of the universe turning around a fixed point, and the priestess / goddess grinding her corn counter-clockwise. Tom's expositions on astronomical theory impressed me massively as a teenager, and now evoke a fondness for his brittle cleverness. And, at last, I think I understand Jan.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

2012/34: The Annotated Alice -- Lewis Carroll, ed. Martin Gardner

'This is a child!' Haigha replied eagerly, coming in front of Alice to introduce her, and spreading out both his hands towards her in an Anglo-Saxon attitude. 'We only found it to-day. It's as large as life, and twice as natural!'

'I always thought they were fabulous monsters!' said the Unicorn. 'Is it alive?'

'It can talk,' said Haigha, solemnly. [Through the Looking Glass, Chapter 7]

Read for the Coursera Fantasy and SF course (week 2).

I've read the Alice books many times, though not for a while: my copy is Martin Gardner's Annotated Alice, which I bought for a course in my first year at university, and thought tremendously clever. (I don't think I'd encountered this level of entertaining discussion, expansion and explanation in criticism before.)

As usual with rereads, I'm as intrigued by what I'd forgotten as by what I remembered. For instance, I'd forgotten how much antagonism and aggression there is: I don't just mean the Red Queen's decapitation-frenzies, but the general belligerence and mistrust of almost everybody who Alice encounters.

I'd also completely forgotten about the Anglo-Saxon attitudes of Hatta and Haigha. But I did remember a lot of the poetry, word for word. Oh, brain, why so picky?

My Coursera essay below.

Alice's parents are never mentioned in either Alice in Wonderland or Through the Looking Glass. Her sister (who isn't named) appears briefly in the beginning of Wonderland, but Alice -- despite being seven years old, and in a puzzling and sometimes frightening situation -- doesn't think about her mother or her father.

Indeed, there are very few parent-child relationships in the books, and these relationships are depicted as negative or distant. The Duchess's cruelly-treated baby ('speak roughly to your little boy / and beat him when he sneezes') turns out to be a pig. The King and Queen of Hearts have ten royal children, but they are indistinguishable from one another. The poem 'You are old, Father William', is about a young man and his father, both rude and impertinent. ('Be off, or I'll kick you downstairs!') The only positive parent-child relationship seems to be that of the nameless hero of 'Jabberwocky' and his proud parent who cries 'Come to my arms, my beamish boy!'.

The absence of parents may be a reflection of Victorian middle-class life. Alice and her sister may well have been left to the care of a nurse or governess -- both of whom are mentioned in the books -- seeing their parents only rarely. When Alice dreams of exploring Looking Glass House, she is alone in the drawing-room with only Dinah the cat for company. Nobody is supervising her, and there is no one to stop her playing or keep her from harm.

In the absence of her parents, Alice is an independent individual who can make choices and be the heroine of her own story. By the end of the second book she has become a Queen in her own right, capable of standing up to the Red and White Queens and asserting herself.

2012/33: Household Stories -- Brothers Grimm

"Shall we suffer death because of a girl! we swear to be revenged; wherever we find a girl we will shed her blood." ['The Twelve Brothers']

Read for the Coursera Fantasy and SF course (week 1).

I'm familiar with many of these stories -- often in bowdlerised or Disneyfied form -- but I don't believe I've ever read through all of them in a short time.

The Brothers Grimm have a lot to answer for. There are some truly nasty and nightmarish punishments here; also, some utterly surreal characters. (Three drops of blood, who are quite talkative; a pin and a needle, who are active enough to hitch a ride but passive enough to be put to use as instruments of punishment; and a sausage, which comes to regret its houseshare with a mouse and a bird.) There are pairs of stories with identical plot; there are stories which have the discursive, rambling feel of oral histories; there are plenty of feisty heroines and a plethora of bad parents (usually mothers).

I was struck by some of the resonances with myth and folklore, and by the universality of the tales. Hence my Coursera essay, below, in which the phrase 'serial numbers filed off' does not appear.

The characters in these tales seldom have names. There is Rapunzel, whose name is part of the chant "Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair"; there is Rumpelstiltskin, who keeps his name a secret. In 'Sleeping Beauty', the princess suddenly acquires a name halfway through: "the beautiful sleeping Rosamond, for so was the princess called" (p. 206).

But most of the tales are populated by nameless, interchangeable figures: the wise woman or witch, the wicked stepmother, the ugly sister, the huntsman, the prince, the king. (One must read carefully, in tales such as 'The Six Swans', to understand that the king's daughter is not marrying her father but another king.) The tales are full of animals -- the fox, the wolf, the goat -- who, naturally, have no names. (A notable exception is the horse Falada in 'The Goose Girl'.)

Why are the characters nameless? One explanation is that these are ancient stories, told many times before they were ever written down: the details have been worn away. There are echoes of the Bible in 'The White Snake', where a servant samples the king's special dish and, like King Solomon, learns to hear the language of birds and animals. Some of the tales have an 'Arabian Nights' feel to them (for instance, 'The Fisherman and his Wife'); others are more European in flavour, such as 'The Six Swans'.

Or perhaps the people in these stories are not characters at all, but archetypes. They are like a series of masks that the audience can apply to themselves and to people they know. The wicked stepmother may become, in a child's mind, his own mother. The notion of the ugly sister may crystallise a young girl's feelings of sibling rivalry. And children want to be the brave prince, the beautiful princess, the cunning tailor. These tales are deeply symbolic, and naming the protagonists would detract from the universality of them.

Monday, August 06, 2012

2012/32: The Sea Road -- Margaret Elphinstone

The ghost looks down on the grave, which is covered by the stone with the cross scratched on it, and it knows that no living man will ever come there again in the knowledge of its presence ... Its people have left nothing behind them that anyone will ever find again. There is nothing left but a ghost, and it will be nothing too, when no one is left who is able to remember. (p. 216)
The Sea Road is based on the life of Guðríður Þorbjarnardóttir, a third-generation Icelander who was among the first Viking colonists of North America and who is recorded as the first European woman to give birth there.

Ever since I read Hy Brasil, I've admired Margaret Elphinstone's gift of bringing immediacy to historical characters and remote locations. Her first novels, The Incomer and A Sparrow's Flight, are SF: more recent works have been historical, with settings from the Neolithic to the nineteenth century and the occasional glimmer of the fantastical.

The Sea Road is no exception. Gudrid's intelligence and dignity sustain her through famine and plague in Greenland, a year as the sole woman in a colony of warriors, and a strange encounter with a skraeling woman. She finds beauty in 'the silvery light of the north, and icebergs as white as froth on cream'; and she recalls the night in Greenland when she saw a woman's corpse rise up from its deathbed, to be felled by the dead woman's husband.

Gudrid's story is framed by the narrative of Agnar, an Icelandic priest in Rome who is recording the aged Gudrid's reminiscences. The two of them, old woman and young man, form a bond of respect and love that underpins Gudrid's dramatic, and in places distinctly unChristian, account of her life. Her world is a marginal one: the Icelandic settlers are 'still trying to find a way to live in [their] new country', and though most of them are at least nominally Christian ('Christianity makes women safe and dutiful') the old gods -- or at least their adherents -- are never far away. Gudrid regards herself as a Christian, but she speaks of Hel and Jormungand as commonplaces, and knows that the dead persist. Indeed, they are ever present in Gudrid's world -- until she reaches the 'empty land' of Vinland, which is not empty at all, but is not haunted by generations of Norse ghosts. ("If a person went to a land that was empty, where no people had ever been before, there wouldn't be any ghosts there, would there?"
"Only the ones you're bound to take with you." (p. 32))

Gudrid understands the lure of the unknown, the empty places, the land that has never been settled. She is accustomed to the harsh realities of life (exile, slavery and banishment; blood-feuds, arranged marriages and murder; the economics of ship-building and wine-making) but never blind to the beauties that surround her, whether the ice and freezing light of the north or the golden warmth of Rome. She's a remarkable character.