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

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

2014/30: Cold Comfort Farm - Stella Gibbons

The country for miles, under the blanket of the dark which brought no peace, was in its annual tortured ferment of spring growth; worm jarred with worm and seed with seed. Frond leapt on root and hare on hare. Beetle and finch-fly were not spared. The trout-sperm in the muddy hollow under Nettle Flitch Weir were agitated, and well they might be. The long screams of the hunting owls tore across the night, scarlet lines on black. In the pauses, every ten minutes, they mated. It seemed chaotic, but it was more methodically arranged than you might think. [p.45]

Reread, because it is lovely and witty and dry. Flora, orphaned and impecunious, throws herself on the mercy of her Starkadder relatives, who farm at Cold Comfort (somewhere in the South Downs) and incarnate a great many stereotypes of rural life. "'...highly-sexed young men living on farms are always called Seth or Reuben, and it would be such a nuisance. And my cousin's name, remember, is Judith. That in itself is most ominous. Her husband is almost certain to be called Amos; and if he is, it will be a typical farm, and you know what they are like.' Mrs Smiling said sombrely: 'I hope there will be a bathroom. ' "[p. 22]

Flora is a practical young woman with no time for the dreary romantic meanderings of young Elfine, or the mollocking ("What does mollocking mean?? No, you need not tell me. I can guess.") Seth, or the tragic Miss Judith laying out her cards in the attic. Not given to metaphor or melodrama, Flora bursts upon the Starkadders and - apparently immune to the bestial forces of nature, and the emotional excesses of the Romantics - transforms their lives. The mundanity of their secret hopes and dreams revealed, Seth and Elfine leave the cloying confines of their ancestral home, and Aunt Ada emerges from the attic at last ?

Cold Comfort Farm, written in 1932, is set in The Future: there are video phones (though public callboxes are not fitted with a 'television dial'); Flora's suitor, Claud, is a veteran of the Anglo-Nicaraguan wars of '46; postal deliveries arrive by air. In other ways, though, it's very much a novel of the interwar period. There's a general sense of placid contentment. Seth's secret vice is Hollywood movies, which he sneaks out to the village to see at the cinema. Elfine, without Flora's intervention, will likely 'keep a tea-room in Brighton and go all arty-and-crafty about the feet and waist'. Despite the mod cons of London life (and I have a special love of Mrs Smiling's brassiere collection, 'the largest and finest in the world') technology doesn't really impinge on the Starkadders. They still, after all, wash the dishes with twigs. Rural life, as portrayed in Cold Comfort Farm, is carnal and covert and full of dark looks. There is a great deal of mollocking.

Gibbons' prose is often hilarious, but she has the gift of insightful metaphor: the novel's full of vivid images, for instance 'the wet fields fanged abruptly with flints'. She takes (and gives) pleasure in luxuriant sentences: 'the remaining railway companies had fallen into a settled melancholy; an idle and repining despair invaded their literature, and its influence was noticeable even in their time-tables.'

One day I must read her other novels.

Monday, September 29, 2014

2014/28: The Grass King's Concubine – Kari Sperring

She had come to the steppe in search of her past and of her shining place, of the line and deeds that had begotten her wealth, her status and of the dream she had clung to. She had expected to find records, memories, old tales. Instead… The past, the myths she dreamed of, had been looking for her, too. [p. 271]

Aged six, Aude Pèlerin des Puiz catches a glimpse of a shining world during an earthquake. The vision haunts her as she grows to adulthood, counterbalancing the humdrum privilege of her quotidian life. Aude is, if you like, one of the 1%: her family is wealthy, and she lives in her uncle's Silver City house for years before she begins to take an interest in the Brass City working class whose labour provides her luxuries.

Falling in with Jehan Favre, a Brass City soldier with revolutionary tendencies, Aude flees the city (and imminent marriage to a scrawny, sallow young nobleman) in search of her family's history. Somewhere out on the steppes is the secret to their success. And perhaps she can also find the shining world she glimpsed as a child, which the writings of the scholar Marcellan have told her is the domain of the Grass King: WorldBelow.

But the Grass King has his own agenda: his concubine, Tsai, who controlled the waters, is fading. The Grass King and his Cadre – inhuman warriors, each with his or her own affinity – seek restitution. Aude is abducted and taken to the Grass King's court in the Rice Palace.

Fortunately, Jehan has attracted the attention of two individuals who wish to free Marcellan himself from the Grass King's court. Yelena and Julana are not witches: they are (delightfully) ferret-women, quick and cunning and prone to bite, and they are willing to act as Jehan's guides in exchange for his help. Marcellan's writings, it turns out, have been more widely read than he could have hoped. Between Aude's ancestors' land-grabbing and river-damming in WorldAbove, and Marcellan's introduction of human technology and rationality into WorldBelow, everything is imbalanced, withering in unnatural drought.

That summary omits a great deal: The Grass King's Concubine is a many-layered book told from three viewpoints (Aude, Jehan, the ferret women) and constructed from (at least) two distinct timelines. It's a complex and slow-paced novel, tremendously atmospheric: from the clamorous mills of the Brass City (reminiscent of revolutionary France) to the sewers of the distinctly Oriental Rice Palace, every scene is rich with sensory detail.

As in Living with Ghosts, water plays a vital role in this novel: but here it's the lack of it, drought rather than flood, that drives the narrative. There are folk-tale resonances and echoes of mythology, entwined with the introduction of technology – I was especially fascinated by Liyan's clepsydra, or water-clock – into the dreaming peace of WorldBelow, and with the religious observances of WorldAbove.

The characters have distinctive voices, and their motives and actions, as in the mundane world, lead to unforeseen outcomes. Good intentions are no excuse: the sins of the ancestors shall be visited on their descendants. And yet, amends can be made. On one level the novel's ending feels incomplete: on other, deeper levels, closure is achieved. The Grass King's Concubine is not a quick or an easy read, but I found it thought-provoking and beautifully written.