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Archive for the ‘scottish literature’ Category

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This novel is as luscious as its cover!

Last year I very much enjoyed Gavin MCrea’s Mrs Engels – the story of Friedrich Engel’s mainly invisible-to-posterity female companion. That was a novel written very much into the spaces left by history. Czerkawska’s fictionalisation of the life of Jean Armour, the wife of Robert Burn’s has more historical backup. Nevertheless, in writing from Jeanny’s point-of-view, the talents, strengths and weaknesses of Scotland’s national bard are seen through the subjective eyes of the young girl who fell in love with him and never stopped loving him until her dying day, and that despite the hard times, repeated infidelities, and a widowhood that lasted 38 years.

What did he do to deserve it?  I was shaking my head at times, but then, times were different in 18th century Ayrshire, and Jeanny’s options were limited – particularly after falling pregnant to Burns, not once, but twice outside of wedlock. The wedlock status, it turns out, can be debated.  Certainly the civil arrangements that Burns had put in place were not recognised by her parents during the first pregnancy.  They loathed him.  He had no morals, no money and no prospects at that time, and so Jeanny’s parents packed her off to relatives in Paisley.  At which point Burns felt deserted and started the affair with Highland Mary, a rebound relationship, not only for him, but for her.  Just one of the many surprises in the twists and turns and emotional anguish that were endured before Burns and Jeanny were recognised as man and wife.

Not that the anguish abated.  9 children, only 3 of whom survived to adulthood.  Adopting her husband’s illegitimate daughter.  Recognition of her husband’s poetic talents brought fame, no fortune, but plenty of opportunity for further amorous adventures.  And pain when their private lives were put on show in his published poetry.  Further pain and humiliation when poems about his other women were published.  Czerkawska’s novel makes the emotional cost to Jean Armour of Burns’s success all too clear.

But, as we say in Scotland, she was some woman…. with an amazing generosity of spirit. She was Burns’s feet-on-the-ground anchor in Ayrshire.  Not without artistic talent of her own either.  She had a wonderful singing voice and the ballads that she learnt from her mother were the source of much of Burns’s material.  It’s no wonder Burns genuinely loved her (as best he was able.) She was the Belle of the Belles of Mauchline to him, his jewel, and his pet name for her was “mae wee lintie” (songbird).  In tribute to her, he included a woodlark on his personal seal.

The choice of an omniscient 3rd-person narrative gives the author freedom to include descriptive passages, conversations, and conjectures in a much more natural way than a 1st-person narrative would have done. The narrator doesn’t intrude for the most part.  (Except with one she’ll rue the day type statement after the couple’s first reconciliation.)  The dialogue has a distinctive Scottish cadence using local vocabulary of the time. It rings true, and there is a useful glossary at the back for non-Scots (like me).

Each chapter is headed by a short excerpt from one of Burn’s poems, relevant to forthcoming events.  I found this an effective way of showing the sublimation of life into art. Behind some of those poems are events that are often anything but sublime. Also people made invisible due to the brightness of their spouses’s star. Such as Jean Armour.  Czerkawska’s novel certainly brings her out of the shadows to give her the credit that is due. It also confirms that, when Burns chose her, he chose well.

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imageSo here I am, regaining my sanity after the recent book-culling saga. What better way of relaxing into the pleasures of my own book collection than spending some time with a kindred spirit …

he picked up a book and stroked his finger lingeringly over its leather cover. She (Violet, his second wife) watched as he opened it and brought up the splayed yellowing pages to his nostrils. He slowly inhaled. It was sensual, her husband’s experience of books, the texture, the sweet or acrid colours, the feel of a rough, uncut page.

Well, yes to all that, I would say.  But Violet is a content person. She loves the processes of thought, the flight of imagination.

Is this a basic incompatibility that portends a bad end to their fairytale marriage?

I use that epithet advisedly because that’s the way it is.  Violet,  a friendless penniless orphan, marries her somewhat older Lord, a matter of months after he asks what she is reading.  She is transported to a country mansion with an extensive library.  A year later she is a mother, yet not content.  Her husband goes wandering at night and what is that book, dedicated to his first wife, that he keeps locked away in his safe?

Set in the pre-WWI Edwardian era, when well-off women at home didn’t have enough to do to keep themselves grounded,  Violet begins to obsess on these matters, gradually losing her grip on reality. Delusions follow which render her a risk to her child, and Archibald, as was the way back then, consigns her for treatment in the lunatic asylum.

So far, so reasonable.  Violet’s illness could all be explained nowadays as post-natal depression, couldn’t it? Archibald is nothing other than a caring husband ensuring the then best available treatment for his wife.  That perceived emotional emptiness is just that – a percepton, isn’t it? Thus does Violet justify her husband’s actions, but, while in the asylum, stories surface of his frequent visits and his cosy relationship with the doctors …..

Following her release, matters deteriorate when Archibald installs Clara as nurse-maid,  he continues his nocturnal wanderings and former inmates of the asylum begin to disappear.  That prescribed bottle of laudanum makes it impossible for Violet to distinguish between reality or paranoid delusion.  A second trip to the asylum is inevitable. Which, given the pattern of the first, bodes ill for Violet and the solution of the mystery.

However, Thompson ensures there is sufficient concrete evidence – including a brief glimpse of a macabre jigsaw with characters from the fairytales of Hans Christian Andersen – for the reader to understand what Violet cannot.  That Lord Archibald Murray is no fairytale prince, but an Edwardian bluebeard, complete with trophy cabinet.  Not the literal room full of blood-spattered corpses but a trophy made possible by Edwardian practices of bookbinding.

Thompson is excellent at subverting reader expectations and tipping the world on its head.  And so that paragraph on the behaviour and habits of a fellow tactile bibliophile, quoted above, now makes me shudder. Not entirely sure I’m thanking her for that.

Mistress of slippiness and suggestion she may be,  but there are places where the brutality – be it of Violet’s treatment in the asylum or the murders and subsequent processing of the corpses  – is viscerally realistic.  However, in this short novel of 159 pages, such passages are never gratuitous, nor extended.  Recommended for non-squeamish lovers of fairytales retold.

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Having ignored Book Week Scotland for the last few years due to the clash with #germanlitmonth, I decided to challenge myself to find a book that satisfied the demands of both events.  Et voilà!

imageTranslated from German by Brian Battershaw

At the age of forty, twenty years before turning his pen to fiction, Theodor Fontane travelled to Scotland with his friend, Bernard von Lepel,  like many others enticed by the romantic historical novels and ballads of Sir Walter Scott and entranced by the figure of Mary, Queen of Scots. Their journey was a pilgrimage of sorts, and, I must admit,  well-planned.  I’m not entirely sure how long it lasted – matter of months I suspect – but they accomplished more that I have managed in 28 years of living here!

imageThe map on the right shows the route, and those in the know, will realise that it takes in  sites that are still major tourist attractions today.  Most of which I have visited too, and I found it interesting that the places Fontane describes are often as they appear today. (The places around them will have changed beyond all recognition and so I challenged myself to spot the details that Fontane didn’t mention: so no Nessie in Loch Ness (the story only began to spread in 1933), no McCaig’s tower in Oban (erected 1897) and curiously no mention of the bird colonies on the Isle of Staffa (and they must have been there when Fontane visited.) Neither did he visit a distillery, or if he did he didn’t tell us about it – perhaps the many temperamce preachers he met imfluenced him after all!

But enough of things, Fontane and Lepel didn’t see.  Here are some of the things that they did.

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Fontane’s travelogue is detailed amd multi-faceted with fastidious descriptions of places and people, historical anecdotes (lesser known as well as milestone events), translations of Scottish poems, retellings of Scottish legends, interspersed with personal experiences. These latter show the realities of travel in the mid-19th century.  Remind me never to take the end seat on the outside of a stage-coach.

passengers at the ends of each row … sat with only one cheek on the bench, so that the outer half of each individual dangled and swung to and fro together with hat-boxes and portmanteaus.  I need hardly say that such a minimum of travelling comfort would have been unbearable over a stretch of 75 miles, but for  the fact that at every stage the flanking passengers on the outside changed places so that their right and left halves, alternately rested at the last stage, constituted fresh reserves to put into  line.

The sketches  of his travelling companion Lepel complement the text.  3 of these are reproduced on the book jacket.  (From top to bottom: Loch Leven Castle, Isle of Staffa, Edinburgh) The book was intended to be a travel guide, and, for the most part, it could still serve that same purpose today (modes of transport excepted, of course.) I enjoyed Fontane’s keen observations and I learnt much about Scotland too.  A couple of  examples shall suffice.

1) Of Edinburgh and Stirling castle (Page 100)

Edinburgh Castle is like a recumbent lion while Stirling Castle resembles a sitting one.

2) Of the British Army (Page 102 doubtless a sly swipe at the Prussian Army and possibly not true today.)

We make a great mistake if we think of the British Army as a machine that removes the last vestiges of freedom and independence from the individual.

I will say, however, that there are very few references to the weather – from this I shall assume that the late summer of 1858 must have been a good one!

9 of the 27 chapters are devoted to Edinburgh.  Glasgow is lucky to get 9 lines! How so?  One look at the 300 foot-high factory chimneys of which a number were to be seen rising into heaven like pillars of petrified steam sufficed to make Fontane and Lepel rush for the  next train back to Edinburgh.

Fontane’s most scathing comments, however, are reserved for Abbotsford, Walter Scott’s self-designed ‘Romance in Stone and Mortar’.

There is a rhyming party game in which the participants write a line, then turn the paper down save for the last word, so that there can be no possible connection between what  the next man writes and what has been written before him.

Abbotsford is like that. It has been built for the sake of some forty or fifty catchwords.

No-one is more mortified than Fontane himself that he cannot adopt that tone of love and reverence to which one’s lips  have almost become accustomed when they utter Sir Walter’s name.  Lest we forget, visiting the places that Sir Walter Scott had written about was the primary reason  for Fontane’s journey.  Scott’s ballads were also the inspiration for Fontane’s early writing, who gave a number of his own ballads  Scottish settings. So to find his hero guilty of such poor taste was devastating. (Incidentally I disagree with Fontane here – I find Abbotsford quite charming and Scott’s novels unreadable.)   Regardless, the disappointing visit to Abbotsford, which lies on the Tweed,  is the final stage on this journey and signals a change of direction for Fontane.  When he finally publishes his debut, the historical novel Before the Storm in 1878, there is no trace of Scott’s romantic style and chivalric flourishes. He has become the realist writer on which his fame is based.

His love affair with Scotland had not ended, however.  Some 30 year later he wrote that this journey was one of the most beautiful in my life, at all events the most poetic,  more poetic than Switzerland, France, Italy and everything that I saw later on.

As a Sassenach in Scotland, I’d better not argue with that!!

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imageEver bought a book for its cover? Would you have bought this one?

When I spotted this gloriously garish dustcover from 1968 on the shelves of a dilapidated, dusty charity shop in Dunoon, it promised old-fashioned frights aplenty.  And now, some eight years later, thanks to the TBR Triple Dog Dare, and the fact that I’m on a run of Austrian novels or novels set in Austria, I’ve removed another layer of dust and finally read it.

It was £1 well spent.

Not as quaint as I expected, although in places, itwas corny and unfeasible. Yet it proved a thoroughly entertaining thriller involving a chest of Nazi secrets recovered from the Finstersee (sinister lake), and the race to take possession of it following the death of the diver who brought it from the depths.  How many interested parties are there?  Closet Nazis, Austrian police, Austrian secret service, the FBI, the Russians, the Chinese maybe, (I was losing count by this stage), a family in it purely for personal gain and an American publisher and his lawyer.  In fact, the merry dance begins with a book contract gone wrong.

Crosses and counter crosses, in the days before computers, tracking devices and mobile phones.  Old fashioned leg work, signals agreed verbally in advance and passed on in the way a book is placed on a table.  The fact that the lawyer is a civilian who is allowed to take the key role in the pursuit of the chest is highly unlikely but he was such a well-groomed, courteous, honourable gent that I hardly cared, even when he couldn’t spot an obvious plant from 5 feet away. I was happy for him, when he and his new found lady love survived all the ruthlessness and peril and drove off into the distance at the end, because what is a thriller without a little old-fashioned romance?

Don’t think this novel is as superficial as my synopsis. Amidst the action are some touching psychological portraits of people damaged by the past.  It’s also quite well signposted who has the most to lose if the chest is opened, and it’s hard not to sympathise, once his history is revealed. As for the lady spy, orchestrating from the centre, well, she is one nasty piece of work.

I hadn’t heard of Helen MacInnes before, so imagine my surprise to find she was a top selling Scottish espionage writer in her day, with a husband who worked for MI5.  So there’ll be authenticity in the detail ….  Interestingly, much of her back catalogue, including The  Salzburg Connection, has recently been reissued …..

© Lizzy’s Literary Life 2016

 

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The first thing I am aware of is the taste of salt. It fills my mouth. Invasive. Pervasive. It dominates my being, smothering all other senses. Until the cold takes me. Sweeps me up and cradles me in its arms. Holding me so tightly I can’t seem to move. Except for the shivering. A raging, uncontrollable shivering. And somewhere in my mind I know this is a good thing. My body trying to generate heat. If I wasn’t shivering I would be dead.
It seems an eternity before I am able to open my eyes, and then I am blinded by the light. A searing pain in my head, pupils contracting rapidly to bring a strange world into focus. I am lying face-down, wet sand on my lips, in my nostrils. Blinking furiously, making tears to wash the stuff from my eyes. And then it is all I can see. Sand, stretching away to a blurred horizon. Tightly ribbed. Platinum pale. Almost bleached.
And now I am aware of the wind. Tugging at my clothes, sending myriad grains of sand in a veil of whisper-thin gauze across the beach in currents and eddies, like water.
There is, it seems, almost no feeling in my body as I force myself to my knees, muscles moved by memory more than will. And almost immediately my stomach empties its contents on to the sand. The sea that has filled it, bitter and burning in my mouth and throat as it leaves me. My head hanging down between shoulders supported on shaking arms, and I see the bright orange of the life jacket that must have saved me.
Which is when I hear the sea for the first time, above the wind, distinguishing it from the rushing sound in my head, the God-awful tinnitus that drowns out almost everything else.
Heaven knows how, but I am up and standing now on jelly legs, my jeans and trainers, and my sweater beneath the life jacket, heavy with the sea, weighing me down. My lungs are trembling as I try to control my breathing, and I see the distant hills that surround me, beyond the beach and the dunes, purple and brown, grey rock bursting through the skin of thin, peaty soil that clings to their slopes.
Behind me the sea retreats, shallow, a deep greenish-blue, across yet more acres of sand towards the distant, dark shapes of mountains that rise into a bruised and brooding sky. A sky broken by splinters of sunlight that dazzle on the ocean and dapple the hills. Glimpses of sailor-suit blue seem startling and unreal.
I have no idea where this is. And for the first time since consciousness has returned, I am aware, with a sudden, sharp and painful stab of trepidation, that I have not the least notion of who I am.
That breathless realisation banishes all else. The cold, the taste of salt, the acid still burning all the way up from my stomach. How can I not know who I am? A temporary confusion, surely? But the longer I stand here, with the wind whistling around my ears, shivering almost beyond control, feeling the pain and the cold and the consternation, I realise that the only sense that has not returned to me is my sense of self. As if I inhabit the body of a stranger, in whose uncharted waters I have been washed up in blind ignorance.
And with that comes something dark. Neither memory nor recollection, but a consciousness of something so awful that I have no desire to remember it, even if I could. Something obscured by . . . what? Fear? Guilt? I force myself to refocus.
Away to my left I see a cottage, almost at the water’s edge. A stream, brown with peat, washes down from hills that lift beyond it, cutting a curving path through smooth sand. Headstones rise up from a manicured green slope, higgledy-piggledy behind barbed-wire fencing and a high stone wall. The ghosts of centuries watching from the silence of eternity as I stagger across the sand, feet sinking nearly ankle-deep in its softness. A long way off to my right, on the far shore, beside a caravan just above the beach, I see a figure standing in silhouette, sunlight spilling down from the hills beyond. Too far away to discern sex or size or form. Hands move up to a pale face, elbows raised on either side, and I realise that he or she has lifted binoculars to curious eyes and is watching me. For a moment I am tempted to shout for help, but know that, even had I the strength, my voice would be carried off by the wind. So I focus instead on the path I see winding off through the dunes to the dark ribbon of metalled, single-track road that clings to the contour of the near shore as it snakes away beyond the headland.
It takes an enormous effort of will to wade through the sand and the spiky beach grass that binds the dunes, staggering up the narrow path that leads between them to the road. Momentarily sheltered from the constant, battering wind, I lift my head to see a woman coming along the road towards me.
She is elderly. Steel-grey hair blown back in waves from a bony face, skin stretched tight and shiny over bold features. She is wearing a parka, hood down, and black trousers that gather over pink trainers. A tiny yapping dog dances around her feet, little legs working hard to keep up, to match her longer strides.
When she sees me she stops suddenly, and I can see the shock on her face. And I panic, almost immediately overwhelmed by the fear of whatever it is that lies beyond the black veil of unremembered history. As she approaches, hurrying now, concerned, I wonder what I can possibly say to her when I have no sense of who or where I am, or how I got here. But she rescues me from the need to find words.
‘Oh my God, Mr Maclean, what on earth has happened to you?’
So that’s who I am. Maclean. She knows me. I am suffused by a momentary sense of relief. But nothing comes back. And I hear my own voice for the first time, thin and hoarse and almost inaudible, even to myself. ‘I had an accident with the boat.’ The words are no sooner out of my mouth than I find myself wondering if I even have a boat. But she shows no surprise.
She takes my arm to steer me along the road. ‘For heaven’s sake, man, you’ll catch your death. I’ll walk you to the cottage.’ Her yappy little dog nearly trips me up, running around between my feet, jumping at my legs. She shouts at it and it pays her not the least attention. I can hear her talking, words tumbling from her mouth, but I have lost concentration, and she might be speaking Russian for all that I understand.
We pass the gate to the cemetery, and from this slightly elevated position I have a view of the beach where the incoming tide dumped me. It is truly enormous, curling, shallow fingers of turquoise lying between silver banks that curve away to hills that undulate in cut-out silhouette to the south. The sky is more broken now, the light sharp and clear, clouds painted against blue in breathless brushstrokes of white and grey and pewter. Moving fast in the wind to cast racing shadows on the sand below.
Beyond the cemetery we stop at a strip of tarmac that descends between crooked fenceposts, across a cattle grid, to a single-storey cottage that stands proud among the dunes, looking out across the sands. A shaped and polished panel of wood, fixed between fenceposts, has Dune Cottage scorched into it in black letters.

© Peter May 2016
The Big Coffin Road Blog Read continues at Raven Crime Reads on Friday 15th January with Part Two: The Man I Am
Coffin Road by Peter May is published by Quercus in hardback today and I have one copy to giveaway.  (UK and Europe only.)

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For obvious reasons, shared probably with most of the blogosphere,  I’m avoiding bookshops … Except when I’m at literary festivals or a chance encounter on a city highstreet.  😉  And then I’m not browsing, not book hunting.  Though it might be said the books hunt me!

I spent an inordinate amount of time in the quirky Ayewrite popup bookshop during April. (I’ve written about it before.). Quirky it may be but I always find something unusual and completely new-to-me that somehow transfers from bookshelf to bookbag.  This year was no different.

Ayewrite purchases

Let’s take it from the top.

Tartan Noir claims to be the definitive guide to Scottish Crime fiction and a quick scan of the contents page shows four sections dealing with The Detective Novel, The Police Novel, The Serial Killer Novel and The Noir Novel. Each of those sections in divided into four: a discussion of the particular sub-genre, a discussion of the Scottish variant, a roundup of the Scottish representatives and finally detailed analysis of stirling examples of such.  This is going to be a fascinating and dangerous read.  Fascinating as I will be able to compare Wanner’s analysis with Oxford’s Very Short Introduction to Crime Fiction which OUP very kindly sent recently.  Dangerous because I’m not widely read in Tartan Noir and I suspect that I’ll be taking up Wanner’s recommendations as I go.  It may take me a decade to read this cover to cover!

The book in the middle, Potter’s Field,  is written by a new voice to Tartan Noir, although Chris Dolan is no beginner when it comes to crime writing.  He was one of the screenwriters of Taggart,  a seminal Scottish detective series.  Strapline “There’s been a murder.” I desperately wanted to go to his event, which was one of four openers; 3 of which were tempting.  Unlike Hermione Granger, however, I had to settle for one. So I chose to attend Andy Miller’s  “Read yerself fitter.”  and to buy Chris Dolan’s novel.

Glasgow interiorsFinally a glossy coffee table book chronicling surprisingly glorious interiors of buildings within Glasgow.  Not just the iconic buildings that simply take you breathe away (that’s Glasgow City Chambers on the front cover) but lesser known interiors that impress in their own way.  Pubs, restaurants, tenements, churches, shopping malls all with stunning architectural features, knowledgably described and gloriously photographed.  As spring finally springs, and dry weekends are not for staying in the house, I have a wealth of new places to visit.  One thing to say though, there is no Mackintosh in these pages.  A deliberate omission by the authors who state there are plenty of other publications dealing with his work.  Their objective was to highlight the wealth of other architectural wonders in what was once the second city of the Empire.

So a very Scottish trio, that I’m looking forward to reading over the summer.

They’ll have to wait though because another trio and country is claiming my immediate attention. That’s because spring has sprung and I have wanderlust. Places to visit and not just for the weekend.  Destinations?

die Deutschen

Back soonish.

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I love it when books bulid connections of their own.  Murakami’s Colourless T (for short) charts a young man’s recovery from a grievous hurt after more than a decade.  Peter May’s stand-alone novel, Runaway, proclaims that “Hurt will haunt you”.  Turns out it haunts someone for five decades!

Parts of the novel are based on his own experience of being a runaway at the age of 16, leaving Glasgow behind to hopefully land himself a record contract in London. Exactly what Jack Mackay and his friends try in 1965. It is interesting to speculate how much of this reflects May’s own experience. In view of what is to transpire, I do hope, not too much!

The novel doesn’t start there, but in 2015 in London with a murder, news of which proves to be a catalyst for Maurie, now dying from cancer in Glasgow. He determines to return to London to settle an old injustice and convinces his former travelling companions, Jack and Dave, to take him.  After Jack coralls his lazy and unemployed (unemployable?) grandson as chauffeur, they set off on the same route as that taken 50 years earlier.

The two difficult journeys make up most of the novel and allow May to contrast youthful vigour and the frailties of old age, the fire and the ambitions of the young and the disappointments of lives lived settling for second best.  He also explores the sociological parallels between 1965 and today (e.g drug culture, social deprivation). What can go wrong when a bunch of naive teenagers set off to grasp life by the horns? What can go wrong when a bunch of geriatrics set off to even an old score? (Un)surprisingly past patterns repeat themselves in both dangerous and humorous ways.

The novel comes alive when the boys reach London in the middle of the Swinging Sixties. A group of penniless wannabes from Glasgow need a lucky break. One is forthcoming, though not the one they would have chosen. It does, however, pitch them into the thick of things. Their wide-eyed wonderment gradually turns more knowing. Relationships are threatened by emotional inexperience and growing tensions, that will eventually lead to the murder which opens the novel.

May takes his time depicting the journeys south and the colour of the Swinging Sixties. Perhaps a little too much as I did feel that the 1965 climax was rushed and depended on not one, but two plot devices which didn’t quite ring true. (Cf: Footnote) Minor quibbles.  I remember having a few of these with his previous novel, Entry Island.  That went on to win the 2014  Deanston Scottish Crime Novel of the Year.  On that basis I predict another  – er – runaway success.  

© Lizzy’s Literary Life (2007-2015)

 

 

 

(Footnote: Memory aid to self: phone call, fall guy)

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