I found these four short novels with a squeal of triumph in an Aberdeen second-hand bookshop, and bought them for £3. That’s right: the four books that are one of Garner’s greatest creative accomplishments, in a pristine box set, for barely more than they cost the original buyer in the late 1970s. I could barely contain my excitement, and gobbled all four stories over the next two evenings.
The Stone Book, Tom Fobble’s Day, Granny Reardun and The Aimer Gate were originally sold as children’s books. I know I read Granny Reardun as a child because I never forgot the image of the mother scrubbing the floor, moving backwards on her knees towards the door for the last time, where the rest of the family were waiting in their loaded cart to move somewhere they didn’t want to go. Trouble is, I couldn’t remember the title, and wondered for years where that story had come from. It came from Cheshire, Alan Garner’s ancestral county, and the Allman family were put out of their cottage because it was built of the last dimension stone in the county, and the vicar’s wife wanted it for her garden wall. This cruelty and injustice is a mere detail in the novel, since the main plot is about Joseph deciding that he does not want to be a stonemason like his grandfather, and how he is drawn to the forge as if he belongs there instead. Mark Edmonds wrote about Granny Reardun in an essay in the Alan Garner festschrift First Light: ‘It is only when [Joseph] sees their connection, in chisel mark and weathercock, that he fully understands. Metal is not asking him to turn his back; it just wants him to know where and how he fits’ (76).
Joseph is Mary’s son, and she is the stout-hearted daughter of Robert, the stone mason of The Stone Book. She climbs a ladder all the way to the top of Saint Philip’s steeple, carrying her father’s baggin in a knotted cloth between her teeth. Once she’s got over the dizziness she’s quite happy, and climbs the weathercock to be whizzed round and round by her delighted father. She wants to learn to read, but the squire doesn’t like his kitchen-maids to read, so Robert tools and knaps her a prayer-book from green flint, with a fossil fern on the back. There is also one more wonder in the story, that only Mary can see: she’s the bravest of all the characters in this quartet.
Joseph comes back in Tom Fobble’s Day, when his grandson William is learning how to stand up to the bullying Allman boy over the loan of his sledge. Joseph builds a sledge that carries William from the top of the top field past the dangerous rough ground near the gate, right through to the bottom field, well past the sledge graveyard where all the smashed ruins of homemade sledges end up. William’s sledge, much better than the shrapnel that rains from the sky as German bombers pass overhead, unregarded, is Joseph’s best and last job. Edmonds again: ‘The frame and rails are a composite of the forge that Joseph had stepped back from, and the loom used by William’s namesake many years before’ (78).
We go back in time to uncover that awkward bit between the fields, in The Aimer Gate, in which young Robert is put to work to move the stones and rubble by his uncle Charlie, back from France on leave in the First World War. Charlie is a sniper, his leave nearly up, and he has the shadow of death around him. Faddock Allman is the legless Boer War veteran now breaking stones in the road, sitting in his trolley. Charlie treats Faddock kindly, and with respect, one soldier to another. Faddock was the boy who threw stones through his own cottage window when he was working for the team who broke it up for the vicar’s wife’s garden wall, which is why Robert’s father William won’t speak to him. The ruins of the Allmans’ cottage make the ridge in the field boundary that smashes the unwary sledges, and will blunt the scythes of Charlie and the Leah brothers if young Robert doesn’t clear it out. Charlie’s last job is to shoot the rabbits and other creatures escaping from the field portion ever shrinking beneath the scythes. His sniping skill is his route out of farming, and stonework, and metal crafting, but his own plans may include something more drastic than that.
There’s a photograph of the Garners in First Light, with Joseph and Charlie and Mary and old Robert. We don’t really need to know that all the stories are true, or near enough. They are marvellous. Harry Lupton, again in First Light, said it best: ‘They are of such a distilled precision, they are so layered, so finely observed, so pregnant with what lies under their surfaces’. They wear like stone, with stories in every layer.
This time in the Really Like This Book podcast scripts catch-up I’m in the fourteenth century, immersed in a muddy Norfolk field at the medieval nunnery of Oby. The Corner That Held Them (1948) is a most peculiar and very readable novel by Sylvia Townsend Warner, author of the immortal Lolly Willowes.The Corner That Held Them is a fictionalisation of history, with no heroes and no heroines, and the protagonists jog slowly past our field of vision as we move from the twelfth century through the thirteenth, into the fourteenth. We meet five prioresses, four bishops, one custos (or convent business manager, in modern parlance), and one priest with a rather important secret that has become a nunnery tall tale since he revealed it inadvertently in the throes of a fever, thinking he was dying. Naturally none of the nuns believe him.
The plot, such as it is, begins with how this nunnery was founded. It was built in the memory of Alianor, the dead wife of Brian de Retteville, whom we first meet in bed, just before her lover is killed by her husband. After this rather big life event she has some children and then dies, and – most inexplicably – her angry and resentful husband is full of grief, and decides to build a nunnery, into which he can put their two sickly and uninteresting daughters. The nuns are installed, and get on with praying for the souls of the de Rettevilles, and inhabit the land for the glory of God. Their lives consist of small beer and minor irritations which Warner passes through so smoothly, telling the passing of the years where nothing much happens. There’s a murder, and much political second-guessing in the elections for the next prioress. Nuns have to wait for each other to die before they can change their office to be given work that is more congenial, or less awful. Small acts of kindness are rare, and the acts of ignorance and stupidity are many: this was not an educated period for anyone in England, so actions taken through lack of knowledge and understanding are very influential.
This is such an engrossing novel because it reads as if history is just unrolling in front of you. In my day job I’ve been using a very good recent study of the historical novel as a genre, by Jerome De Groot, that makes several observations very helpful for thinking about this novel. The first one is that the historical novel consciously hoodwinks the reader, we have to agree to be bamboozled into thinking that all this really happened, when really the author is making all of the story up. She’s not making up the history parts, we’re happy to believe the background details as fact. But weaving the fiction of what one character said to another and what they felt about that thing happening: that’s the fiction to blend seamlessly into the history. The reader thinks that the total invention presented as history is real because the fiction slides into our consciousness under the guarantee of the history; it’s a covert act against our rational understanding that we allow.
Another thing he talks about is the growth of the historical romance. The Corner That Held Them is not a historical romance, since there is no romance, no fantastical quest, no romantic love story, no urgent need for emotional satisfaction carried over for hundreds of pages to end in a tidy conclusive ending a few lines before the typing stops. The Corner That Held Them is about how history happens and what the nuns think about the bits of history happening that they notice. They notice rents not being paid so much, and don’t really know what to do about this. They are terrified, with good reason, of the fourteenth-century bands of robbers that prey on isolated monasteries, so they send off their valuable altar vessels for the bailiff to bury, which he does, and then he dies. In one of the most magical parts of the narrative (it’s really not a story), the convent’s custos Henry Yellowlees stays the night at a leper hospital, on an errand for the nuns. The chaplain shows him some remarkable new music, Ars Nova, which is the new polyphony, multivocal music that twines and winds the voices around each other: listen to this by Thomas Tallis and you’ll get the idea. Polyphony was banished from the Catholic Liturgy by Pope John XII in 1322, but fifty years later is being sung with rapture by a priest, a clerk and a leper, in this novel.
In another episode of unexpected emotional pleasure, Sir Ralph the priest goes in search of a hawk (since all medieval priests may fly a hawk as a symbol of their gentility). He meets the recently widowed Dame of Brocton who wants to read him the Lay of Mamillion, which her young husband, recently dead, had composed. This is Sir Ralph’s first encounter with medieval literature, and from the snatches Warner invents for our entertainment it seems to be very like Gawain and the Green Knight, thought to have been written around this time. Thus important developments in English art are connected to the history of this nunnery, but the nuns themselves, being enclosed and very wary of change, don’t know anything about them.
The story (which it isn’t) leaves loose ends dangling like a fraying skirt hem. Dame Adela runs away from the nunnery, and goes to sea with Annis the prostitute: what has happened to the valuable new altar embroidery? We don’t see what is important and what is not important. Take this example: Sir Ralph leaves his room, and (I quote) ‘a brimstone butterfly fluttered into the room’. I had that butterfly at the back of my mind for most of the rest of the novel, but nothing seemed to happen to make it important, so I forgot it. But, in her introduction to the Virago reprint of the novel, Claire Harman points out that simply by making us notice that a butterfly came into the room, and then doing nothing with it, Warner was teasing the readers by pointing out that this was one convention of tidy story-telling that she was not going to obey. Nowadays, officious editors will point out to the anxious author that the butterfly has to be tidied up and made important, please, otherwise why mention it? Things happen and aren’t necessarily important, because, what is important in a life? That’s what this novel is about. For the joy of invention, for the pleasure of leaving an untidy ending. To show that no-one really notices butterflies in real life.
In a way, The Corner That Held Them is more like the ‘naturalist realism’ of the nineteenth-century historical novel, which was as plain and historically accountable as it could be, to be real, and natural. Warner’s interjections and abrupt summaries of a year – ‘In 1208 came the Interdict. In 1223 lightning set fire to the granary’ – sound very like proper medieval chronicles, when there wasn’t very much to remember, or nothing much happened that was important enough to write, on calfskin vellum, which was expensive. The same thing happens to the nuns’ collective memory. They can only work out when the daylight owl began to hoot by thinking back to other events: when the pear-tree blossomed, when the refectory was whitewashed, when Dame Amy had a whitlow. They know about Sundays, but every other day flows past in a nameless stream. This vagueness anchored with memorable events is a familiar habit, we all think of our own personal histories like this. But when history goes into a written narrative, it can do two things. It can become the kind of historical fiction called the ‘felt past’, in which the emotions of characters are up front and palpable, the history illustrating their story of love, or adventure, or revenge.
The Corner That Held Them is not one of those. It’s a historical novel in the school of the ‘recovered past’, when the past is the subject, and history is more important than story. It’s also a women’s view of history, a new way of thinking about how history was written that was developed in the early twentieth century, according to Diana Wallace who studies the historical novel. Sylvia Townsend Warner was one of many women writers who redirected the attention of the readers of historical novels to what ordinary lives and ordinary women might have seen, felt, thought or done. Nineteenth-century historical fiction was full of action, drama, high romance, epic adventure, all tough, showy, strong manly stuff, and always fighting. If women appeared in those novels, they were the prizes, or hostages, or useful cleaners and cooks and moppers-up of the heroic blood, backstage. Women’s historical fiction was about the lives of women in history, which could certainly be vague and nameless and undistinguished, just as their lives could be magnificent and heroic and devious and brutal. All of these appear in characters in The Corner That Held Them. It’s a wonderful novel, and a wonderful dip into the unknown muddy stream we call the twelfth, and thirteenth, and fourteenth centuries, somewhere in the east of England.
This time, in the Really Like This Book podcast scripts catch-up, I’m in Ancient Rome, rereading Naomi Mitchison’s excellent novel about very early Christians in the reign of the Emperor Nero, The Blood of the Martyrs, from 1939. You can probably guess the ending already from the clues in the title, but, trust me: it may be a weepy, but it is an outstanding philosophical and theological thriller. It’s set around the beginnings of the Pisonian conspiracy of AD65, which tried but failed to assassinate Nero. The novel’s main protagonists have no idea that a plot is being hatched, because they’re mostly slaves or Romans struggling to earn enough to eat, and the real-life plot only emerges when the main plot of the novel is thundering to its climax.
It’s typical of Naomi Mitchison’s fiction to concentrate on the lives and ambitions of the working-classes and those without power. She was a Scottish socialist novelist who first began to be published in the 1920s and 1930s, and who died in 1999. She published over 90 books, and is most famous for her epic novel The Corn King and the Spring Queen (1931), which was about prehistoric fertility rites in Anatolia, heavily influenced by J G Frazer’s The Golden Bough, and Jane Harrison’s pioneering studies of classical Greek myth and religion. Mitchison took research seriously. She wrote many novels set in prehistory and early classical and Roman history, and was a pioneer in using a pure and undateable vocabulary spoken in a modern style so her characters sound unalienatingly familiar. No hists and thous for her: her Roman matron chatters like an English society lady of the 1930s, and figures from the New Testament sound like normal people.
This plot is about slaves and the very poor in Rome who are or who have become Christian, and are struggling to maintain their tiny Churches in an increasing atmosphere of suspicion. The economy of the Roman Empire is based on slave labour, and must continually acquire more slaves to replace those who die from starvation and ill-treatment. Slaves are not considered to be human, though some of their more benign masters, such as Flavius Crispus in the novel, do see the benefit of treating their property with care to have a better return for their investment in long-term service. Sometimes the worn-out slaves who can no longer carry a litter, say, or who have lost a hand in an accident, are not thrown out or sold, but given light work or retired to the family farm as a useful labourer. But most slaves get sold again once they’ve outlived their use to one master.
Another category of non-Roman citizen were the captured children of enemy nobles, who were brought up as fosterlings in nice Roman homes, until the day came when they needed to be put out of the way, perhaps into the army, or married off to someone who would be grateful. The novel begins in a sultry post-coital scene between Beric, a captive Gaulish prince who has grown up in the house of Flavius Crispus, who has just been doing what he’s been told to by his foster sister Flavia, a beautiful, spoiled and very nasty young woman, who hasn’t yet told the besotted Beric about her betrothal, to be announced that evening. Thus the novel begins with an uneven demonstration of power, between the Roman citizen and the non-citizen, between the emotionally cold and the hopelessly dreamy, and between a young woman with a very assured manner and young man who doesn’t know how shaky the certainties of his life are becoming. We can sense his vulnerability right from the first page, and can tell that things are not going to go well.
As Flavius’s de facto son, Beric runs the house for him, and manages the slaves. But once she’s established his life for us, Mitchison changes tack and begins to tell another story, of Manasses and Josias who were captured in a raid, and grew up as slaves in Rome. Their father had known Jesus’s younger brother James, so they were brought up as Christians, and by luck have managed to find other Christians while in captivity. In a third chapter we hear about a beautiful Persian girl born into slavery and taken from her mother (that’s the second girl the poor woman has lost) when she’s old enough to sell. She becomes Flavia’s newest and most tortured maid. And so on. Each chapter in the first half of the novel puts you inside the experience of sixteen slaves or freedmen and women, and gives you their stories in their own words or from their perspective. This technique of multiple voices isn’t nearly as confusing as you think it might be because Mitchison’s control of her material is absolute, and very subtle.
Reading these chapters, and learning how each story fits into the others, and how their tiny Church grew, is a bit like walking around the outside of a building with many windows. Each time you look through a window, or read a chapter, you see characters you’ve already met, or will meet, doing something slightly different or new or in the past or future, so that the composite picture becomes more detailed, and more nuanced. Some of the characters are already Christian when they arrive in Rome; others become convinced that Jesus’s words are for them, to give them something to live for. It’s quite acceptable at this point in the story to look out a New Testament, to read Paul’s letters to the Romans, to the Corinthians, to the Galatians, Ephesians, Colossians, Thessalonians, Timothy, Titus and Philemon. The tiny group of worshippers that Manasses serves as its deacon is the kind of Church that St Paul was supporting by letters on his travels. He’s in the novel too, in Part Three, when they’re all waiting for the lions, but we’ll get to that.
Every narrative voice in the novel belongs to a character. There is no third-person omniscient narrator, no authorial voice who knows more than the characters or the readers. It’s an egalitarian way to tell a story, which fits beautifully with the Christian ethos that the story illustrates, that everyone is equal and that every person is as important as each other. It’s also a technical tour de force, brilliantly executed, because it’s hard to spot the seamless change in perspectives from one character to another, when – zip – you’re out of Eunice’s bakery and back into Crispus’s house, or into the cellar where the Church meets to worship and receive strength from their beliefs. For a 1930s novel it is also egalitarian in gender and sexuality. Some characters love each other and happen to be men, and also love women: later fans of Mary Renault would have appreciated the delicacy of Mitchison’s touch, who wrote this novel when homosexuality was still illegal in Britain. Women too have equal status in the Church. A dancing girl called Lalage is a deacon alongside Manasses, because those who are strongest in the spirit become leaders, and she is strong.
When Beric is suffering most from the crumbling of his world’s foundations, he becomes aware that some of the slaves that he commands in Crispus’s household have some kind of belief that gives them strength. He joins their Church just as Nero arranges for some areas of Rome to be set on fire to clear the way for his latest architectural experiments. The blame for the fire falls on the Christians, who are enthusiastically rounded up by Praetorian chief Tigellinus, who is also seducing Flavia, now that she is a safely married and under-occupied woman. One by one the members of this small Church are arrested, beaten up, released, and then arrested again, because Nero and Tigellinus want to please the Roman crowds with a really spectacular Games, featuring burning women, chariot races, Christians and wild beasts and animal hunts. Other Churches exist in Rome as well as Manasses’ Church, but they are widely scattered, and rightly cautious about making contact in case they are betrayed by a smiling stranger. The novel ushers or pulls all the characters towards the Coliseum, some of them towards the spectator seats, and some of them towards the cells as the entertainment.
I mentioned that The Blood of the Martyrs is a philosophical and theological thriller. Many of the conversations are between characters trying to explain to each other what Christianity is, and what you do when you are one. In the third part of the novel Paul is in prison with the other characters, and is arguing with them about what needs to be done, and how baptism should be performed. He dictates his letters to other churches to Luke, the doctor who does his best for the prisoners after their torture, but really there is very little he can do for a raped woman who is about to be torn apart by tigers. Stoics and Epicurian characters are also present in the prison, political prisoners lofty in the knowledge that their intellectually superior beliefs do not let them in for such degrading and brutal treatment. But they are shaken by their inability to watch another person suffer and remain unmoved. By witnessing the deaths in the arena, people begin to be converted, and the seed of belief is transmitted by example and by loving kindness. It is a very moving image, drenched with sadness.
Underneath these small stories is our historical awareness of the Christian church at its beginnings, and of the other faiths prospering in Rome at the same time. The Roman Jews do not receive the persecution meted out to the Christians, but when Mitchison was writing this novel, the Jews were being persecuted mercilessly in Nazi Germany, and worse was to come. It’s pretty clear that Mitchison intended this novel to be read as a parable for the contemporary persecution of the Jews as well.
When I began to reread The Blood of the Martyrs I knew that I had not carried it with me through countless house moves for nothing: it is a marvellous, gripping read. But I also knew why I had not wanted to reread it for over twenty years; it is desperately sad, and full of tragic moments you can see coming, agonisingly, several pages off. Find your handkerchief.
Negroland is a memoir of growing up in the 1950s and 1960s as an upper-class black girl in Chicago. It’s about race, class, position, white socks, prejudice, hair oil and its stains, integration, politics, fabulous clothes, architecture, representation, style, standards and history. Jefferson mixes poetry and lyrics with historical extracts and retellings of events from daily and national life. It’s not an easy read, though it is extremely absorbing as a subject, because Jefferson’s prose is challenging; the readers are not let off lightly, and have to work to be told what we want to know.
Reading this had a peculiar effect on me, digging back into my past life. I grew up in a white monoculture in north-east Scotland. I hope I grew up free from racial prejudice because there was nothing in place to teach it. I do know that I was utterly ignorant about black lives, until I went to school in Wilmington, North Carolina, at the age of 9 (my scientist father was working at the oceanographical research station for 6 months, so we moved to the US). I noticed over time that all the children in my fourth-grade class who were noticeably, worrying slow at reading were black: that was how I worked out that economic deprivation and not having books at home could also be based on race. My mother volunteered in a day centre for children with learning difficulties, autism, physical and developmental problems, all jumbled in together in a large room in which she was the only white face. My American smallpox vaccination certificate has a ticked box to signify that I wasn’t black. Living in the USA in 1973 was an other-worldly experience. I visited North Carolina again seven years ago, and the smell of the pines and the quality of the heat and dampness in the air came back to me instantly, like a thump of recognition. Jefferson’s book had the same effect on me, in the stories she tells about the segregation her forebears endured, and the heroic toil of black women to make things a little better for the next generation of women.
Because Jefferson’s mother was an beautiful, fashionable woman, knowledgeable about style and design, much of this memoir is about clothes. She describes her mother’s elegant, cultured female society, her clubs and sororities, the passionate identification she and her sister had for Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, Marian Anderson, and Audrey Hepburn, and the race politics they learned by watching them in their roles, learning their lyrics, understanding that Dandridge would never get the Hepburn parts, and why she refused to take the servant’s role as well. Jefferson and her sister had to shine under crushing rules for girls’ behaviour, for black behaviour, for ladies’ behaviour, all at the same time
However, as well as the images of smiling black girls wearing white socks standing by their father’s cruiser on the lake, Negroland is fascinating for the details of the practical politics of integration, of learning the power of refusal against those who choose to accept you when it suits them. Jefferson writes about the interstices, the period when integration was being worked out at pavement level, how neighbourhoods changed for the new black neighbours and how the black middle-classes moved in, held their own, established their own culture, but always had prejudice waiting for them, in the unsafe areas and the states and counties still segregated in all but name. All this is largely unknown to foreigners like me, the black history that can’t be taught in schools, the details that need to be explained or acted out in film scripts, the daily details that made Black Power possible as a movement.
Negroland was an enlightening memoir to read in the week when the extraordinary interview of Rachel Dolezal by Ijeoma Oluo was published. It was a rebuke and a magisterial stare across the colour bar that whites had established, with the oppressive, empowering weight of history behind it. Dolezal chooses to self-identify as black, but no black woman or man can choose to self-identify as white, unless (as in Jefferson’s memoir) they have the genes for fair skin and obedient hair to ‘pass’, should they want to. For Jefferson’s aunts and uncles it was only ever ‘passing’, temporary whiteness on sufferance because it was economically and socially convenient, and no white person should forget that, or presume to travel in the opposite direction.
Negroland by Margo Jefferson was shortlisted for the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction 2016, and was the winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography. (Granta Books, 2015), ISBN 078-1-78378-339-7, £8.99
From time to time I binge on Discworld. This week, on holiday, I’ve been rereading some of the Terry Pratchett novels that tackle bigotry and racism. They are deeply satisfying combings from the beard of his invention. They don’t offer a unified theory of how people could be nice to each other, but they are superb as reflections of the human condition.
Feet of Clay (1996)
This one has a very high joke count, including the immortal ‘We can rebuild him, we have the pottery’, which only readers of 50ish will ever appreciate fully. * Feet of Clay is The One About The Golems, in which Lord Vetinari is incapacitated by a mysterious poison, Nobby Nobbs is raised to the peerage, Cheery Littlebottom is encouraged to express her feminine nature with illicit lipstick, jewellery and high heels, though she refuses to shave her beard off, and dwarf bread makes its terrifying entrance as a fighting weapon.
Cheery transitions from a standard if slightly nervous male dwarf demeanour to a more feminine self-presentation with the help of a well-established non-human, Delphine Angua von Uberwald, the only werewolf on the Watch. It’s not just because they’re both minority females in a professional milieu full of males, but they are both struggling with how to reconcile their natural feelings. Cheery wants to be able to wear a skirt and not be shouted at by male dwarfs who think openly-displayed femininity is disgusting (we’ll find a much more precise sandblasting of this mindset in The Fifth Elephant). Angua would like to not have to hear (muttered) jokes about what and who she eats. Pratchett’s deft slicing apart of the layers of social prejudice is done with the sharpest of filleting blades. Class, sex, lineage, race, species, deadness, aliveness: all participate in a complex plot jostling with remarks about how it’s normal to hate different people because They and Everybody says so.
The golems show this most concisely, since a golem is a not a person, and is not legally alive. Yet how can a machine be accused of murder? Once the religious confraternity have begun fighting among themselves on this question, one golem learns to speak, develops self-awareness, and develops the financial acumen to work out how to free the other golems by earning enough to buy them. This is a rather nice result from a pyramid chain, since Carrot started it by buying Dorfl for one dollar: one good turn produces an autonomous new species. We are only left with the problem of who organised the poisoning.
* The Six Billion Dollar Man? Steve Rogers? Blonde man with permanent sun-squint runs very very fast in slo-mo? YOU remember ….
The Fifth Elephant (2000)
The One In Which Vimes Goes to Uberwald. I love this novel because it has the Igors, the traditional servants of the vampires who are accomplished surgeons and recyclers of body parts. Vimes goes to Uberwald to represent the city-state of Ankh-Morpork, and to solve the crime of the stolen Scone of Stone, without which the Low King of the dwarfs cannot be crowned.
The Lady Margoletta (is that an echo from Arthur Ransome’s Coot Club …. surely not) is a vampire on the wagon, a modern vampire lifestyle about which we will read a great deal more in The Truth. She goes to mutual support groups and drinks a nasty red drink that probably tastes like cough mixture, but otherwise has a keen interest in sporting events involving werewolves chasing Vimes through the snow. Angua’s father, the Baron, is clearly almost completely wolf, while her mad brother Wolfgang is a Nazi with fangs. Pratchett puts black and silver fascist insignia on Wolfgang’s racial purity nonsense to ram that point home: fascism is beastly and savage, and does not belong in civilised society. Wolves, and other dogs, are completely civilised and natural within their own ecological niche. Werewolves are simply terrorists of nature.
The dwarfs have an internal problem, traditionalists versus reformers, and their hardcore deepdowners refuse to look at sunlight or even go above ground. These traditionalists call Cheery Littlebottom some very foul names because she wears a skirt, but under pressure even they are forced to use the feminine pronoun. This is a dark novel, due to the fundamentally uncompromising nature of fanaticism, but accommodations can be made as you step around the bodies.
The deep vein of sardony (from which Pratchett mines his sardonic) can be seen in the plot twists around the stolen, faked and mysterious Scone of Stone. It is a fundamentally silly thing, a super-toughened lump of dwarf dough, carrying the echo of our own dear Stone of Scone, upon which the monarchs of Britain are crowned. Tradition bestows truth and meaning on the most ridiculous and ordinary objects, like a stone and like bread, and people die if these are disrupted or changed. Pratchett’s genius lies in moving his narrative from comedy to tragedy in the flip of an adjective.
The One With ‘Where’s My Cow?’ When you need dramatic tension, you add a baby, psychotic fundo dwarves with flamethrowers, race riots and the steadiest werewolf on the Watch attacked by class consciousness and sexual jealousy. This one has everything. The anniversary of the Battle of Koom Valley is approaching, a historic conflict between dwarves and trolls, but no-one knows who won. Dwarves are being murdered underground, and there’s finally – finally! – a vampire on the Watch, and she can hear heartbeats in the next room. The phenomenally attractive but very innocent pole-dancer Tawnee is taught the facts of life, and her choices, by three friendly non-human female Watch officers in a night of dubiously named cocktails. Trolls do drugs, dwarves do religion, and everybody has to show a little bit of adaptation and compromise if we’re going to make progress. Vetinari even uses italics for emphasis, something I don’t think we’ve seen before.
The central idea of the plot – that the historic antipathy between trolls and dwarves is being exploited by somebody or something – is beautifully expressed in the central metaphor of the game of Thud, a board game with two halves. You play your opponent either as a dwarf or a troll, and then you play it again from the other side’s perspective. This seriously brilliant concept leads to young dwarves and trolls playing peace games in a cellar, learning about each other’s culture and mindset. The older generation haven’t done this, and they’re the ones who cause trouble, and keep Vimes from getting any sleep for what seems like a week.
As Pratchett matured his art, his themes became more universal and more perfectly expressed to model human behaviour. I really do think Thud is one of his finest novels, up there with I Shall Wear Midnight (community responsibility and male aggression), and possibly also Lords and Ladies (power and violence do not a ruler make). The debate is open.
I’ve posted reviews of other Pratchett novels here and elsewhere, which you can get at through this link to The Shepherd’s Crown.
I haven’t seen Arrival, but I wanted to read the book because the story as told to me by someone who had seen the film interested me greatly. I spotted the book in the bookshop because of the Amy-Adams-in-a-spacesuit cover, and was surprised to see that a whole film had been based on a short story. I’d heard of Ted Chiang, but only vaguely. I’ve finished all the stories in that collection now. Oh my.
Ted Chiang appears to be a polymath. ‘Towers of Babylon’ (a Nebula Award winner) is about Bronze Age architecture that can build a tower to Heaven. ‘Understand’ is about accumulating intelligence and quantitative cognition. ‘Division by Zero’ is about maths, really intimidatingly high-level maths. ‘Story of your life’ (the story the film was made from, and the winner of three awards including a Nebula) is about linguistic theory. ‘Seventy-two letters’ (a Sidewise Award winner) is about two (not one but TWO, darn it) invented pseudo-sciences in an alternative Victorian England. ‘The evolution of human science’ is a three-page short short about how humans can continue to work on science when metahuman science has long since outstripped human understanding. ‘Hell is the absence of God’ relies a little bit on OT theology but is otherwise fairly ground-level sf. It won four awards, including a Nebula and a Hugo: it’s the story I liked least. Hmm. ‘Liking what you see: A documentary’ hauls us right back to the hard stuff by theorising about gnosias that prevent our brains’ perceptions of beauty, and other human things.
Stories of Your Life and Others (the original title of the collection known as Arrival) will expand your mind relentlessly. The knowledge is only part of it: you don’t have to be a computer scientist to be pulled along by the scientific dilemma in ‘Understand’ because it is utterly human. All the stories are about being human, and dealing with the extraordinary. ‘Story of your life’ is the highlight for me; a perfect, beautiful story, beautiful in how the structure reflects the evolution of the story and what we learn from it as we read (the as-we-read bit is important, because this story is about the accumulative process). ‘Tower of Babylon’ was strange and deeply satisfying, and ‘The evolution of human science’ is a pocket firework.
I have some grumbles. ‘Tower of Babylon’ ignores the economic perspective: if a society is building a tower to reach to heaven, so high that the work continues not for weeks or years but generations, who pays for it? And why is that society, which will presumably be weakened by this constant and unproductive drain on its economy, left unmolested and uninvaded by its neighbours over the years that the building continues? ‘Understand’ ends with a titanic battle between two men: WHY? Why does every opposition have to end in conflict?
However, I was most irritated by the immensely long ‘Seventy-two letters’, which is really a novella, rather than a short story. It is set in Victorian England, and we quickly learn that it is an alt universe Victorian England, in which Robert Stratton learns to reprogram his toy golems to see how rewriting their names will affect their behaviour and refine their design. So far, so very steampunk. He becomes a nomenclator, designing new names to create new functions, and his radical new thinking on automaton design enrages the sculptors who make them by its threats to their livelihoods. Meet the Luddites at the Industrial Revolution. Stratton is asked to join a secret science project which is accelerating the development of homunculi from spermatozoa. This is the second pseudo-science of the story, a form of IVF that combines with the faux-genome mapping of the nomenclators to create a superb milieu of steampunk science without the explosions.
The invented sciences are marvellous and slightly chilling, treading closely on the boundaries of dystopia. But I am annoyed that no-one told Chiang that he can’t write British English dialogue. Both the third-person narrative voice and the ‘English’ characters make blooper after blooper, despite Chiang’s exceptionally good reconstruction of Victorian England. The story might have worked better if he had set it in New York, because then the Americanisms would have been appropriate. But to create an English society so faithfully, and not even posit that it was somehow American-English, and then drop clangers in phrasing, social usage and syntax, is just not good enough. No-one in England, now or 150 years ago, ever talks of a ‘steer’ when they mean a cow. Maybe the narrative voice is supposed to be American (but why?), which would explain why ‘Lionel had Robert wait outside’: no English voice would say that, not now or in the nineteenth century. No school-teacher scientist would address a peer without adding ‘my lord’ at the end of his request. No Victorian peer would drink ‘whiskey’, and he certainly wouldn’t pour it himself.
There are many more maddening small errors, and I’m not including the American spellings. It’s annoying to see detectable mistakes in otherwise brilliant work. If you’re going to recreate England AS England, why not do the job properly, or get someone to check it? But apart from that, I love these stories (most of them) and have joined the legions of Chiang admirers.
This podcast scripts catch-up from Really Like This Book is on the first of Gene Wolfe’s epic science-fiction & fantasy tetralogy The Book of the New Sun,The Shadow of the Torturer (1981), the only one of the four I have been able to finish. It is EPIC, a tremendous, sprawling feast of fantastical invention slathered over a strong sf foundation. To reassure those not wishing to read celebrations of violence, it contains only two torture incidents, both very brief, and described in such a way that we are more interested in the how and why than the what.
Here’s the story: Severian is an apprentice torturer, and hopes to rise one day to become not just a journeyman but a master torturer. The torturers are the executioners and punishment inflictors for the Autarch, who is the supreme ruler of this part of Urth. That’s our Earth in the very far future. Severian becomes emotionally too close to a ‘client’, as torture victims are called in this world, closer than he should be, with the result that he is sent on a journey. The journey introduces him, and us, to his world, which is convenient since he and we are equally ignorant about its fascinating details, while the things that Severian knows about that we don’t are not explained because they are the mysteries of his trade, and we the readers are not privy to these. It’s a familiar way to tell a story – Robert Silverberg’s Lord Valentine’s Castle came to mind quite a few times while reading this.
Severian narrates the story from many years later, with more than enough remarks about his later career, so we don’t have to worry about whether he’ll survive (an awkward pitfall of first-person narration: if they’re still alive to write/dictate the narrative, obviously they’re not going to fall down a cliff or onto a spear halfway through). As I say, we are given so much reassurance that Severian will survive, in a narrative where death is simply everywhere, we can concentrate with greater avidity on his story, and try to work out why his society makes a guild of torturers necessary. The McGuffins that keep the plot moving are (1) that Severian has to get to his destination, and (2) by the end of this first novel in the tetralogy he finds a certain extraordinarily valuable something and he has to decide what to do with it. There are other, smaller mysteries as well: why does Dorcas have no memory? Will Vodalus the rebel ever come back to challenge the Autarch? How will Severian reach the destiny we are told about almost at the beginning of the book?
This society is medievalised, which is a peculiar convention in fantasy literature. It is oddly common for a fictional future society to have reverted to pre-industrial technology. This produces useful hand-to-hand, one-to-one combat scenes between characters the reader has learned to care about, rather than big impersonal explosions between anonymous armies (though fantasy still deploys these: looking at you, Michael Moorcock), but why the reversion? What events cause a society to forget all it once knew and regress, other than a lack of industrial quantities of resources? As a former economic history student (one term only, till I failed the course utterly), these motivations for world-building bother me.
Wolfe complicates the medievality by allowing glimpses of, for instance, the fliers owned by the rich, which zip through the air like silver tears. The lighting in the Citadel is clearly from something as long-lasting as nuclear power; some of the torture techniques are based on psychotropic drugs; and the Tower of the Torturers is clearly part of a long-defunct and partially overgrown and overbuilt spaceship. In this respect Wolfe has done what Anne McCaffrey did with her dragons of Pern novels, but he’s stayed on Earth. Extra-terrestrials are mentioned briefly; they are cacogens, pale and thin, but a few more clearly alien creatures and people appear in the last crowd scenes of the novel, with the effect of letting us know that Wolfe has hardly got started: this is just the first act.
On rereading The Shadow of the Torturer, I found that I had not remembered anything much except a sense of wonder and a world that I wanted to return to. Sometimes you get a sf novel where the society is more interesting than the plot, and I think Wolfe may have tipped the balance with this one. I don’t care very much about Severian and his agonies of conscience, but I adore his world. There is a fascinating use of hierarchies in his society. Severian knows his place and refuses to be elevated from it, because his role is more important than the man. He dissuades the chiliarch from giving him his executioner’s fee with his own hand because this would have demeaned the chiliarch’s own office, and was not traditional: his fee had to be flung at him on the ground.
Chiliarch. Yes: what’s a chiliarch? For this purportedly post-historic frame narrative Wolfe adds a note at the end explaining his ‘editor’s need to invent words for ancient concepts that had not come into existence’. Instead of leaving us to accept that sf is just invention like any other kind of storytelling, Wolfe adds extra meaning to the very idea of sf, like so many other sf novelists, by inviting the reader to think about these stories as being the narratives and records of history that have not happened yet. So we don’t just read ‘story’, we also think about these stories as histories, reports, assessments, commentaries: all of which let us consider how future reality might yet be.
With this in mind, we might read The Shadow of the Torturer in this way with some relief, because its most striking aspect is its vocabulary. Opening the book at two, unrelated, pages at random, here is a representative sample: cataphract (some kind of guard), sateen (a fabric, but not the Victorian cheap furnishing fabric with the same name), optimate (middle-class, burgher), armigette (woman of the trading classes), anagnost (official from the justice courts), jade (low-grade mistress, much the same as its early English meaning), bravo (thug, ditto from Renaissance English), sabretache (satchel, also a British nineteenth-century military accoutrement), fuligin (a colour darker than black). Their meaning is fairly obvious in the context, and there are very few words whose meaning is totally obscure, because otherwise how would we understand what’s going on? Wolfe doesn’t want to scare his readers off, he wants us to work through the story with the experience of not everything being familiar or clear.
The associations carried by the similarity of these strange words to existing words add layers of sound and meaning to the prose. His new vocabulary (mainly nouns) sounds as if it was altered by changing a vowel or suffix to make new words from a familiar root. He also changes the meaning of real words, like destrier, which in his world isn’t a horse, but another animal that is however ridden and used like a horse for the upper classes, which is what a destrier was. Wolfe warns that even some words that are familiar may not mean what we understand them to mean, like ‘metal’ and ‘hylacine’.
The early scenes of the novel are set in the apprentices’ world in the Tower of the Torturers, which inevitably recalls Earthsea, or Hogwarts, and then we think, no, this is much darker. The Shadow of the Torturer is about medical training with a particularly non-Hippocratic use of the Oath to ‘do no harm’. These medievalised characters are also not saving the world through magic. There isn’t any magic in these novels: it’s all physics and invented alien biology. This is a magical world only in the sense that it is conjured up by invented and archaic words.
Wondering what the words mean, and knowing that there are going to be gaps in our knowledge throughout the story, keeps us nicely off balance. Nothing can be taken for granted. Wolfe is an expert distracter of attention, of casting casual asides down in our path just as we expect to be focusing on something else, with the clever result of dividing our attention. At the same time that we are focusing on the present we are also looking at the past. Being told things in such an oblique way also changes the focus. Because we aren’t told anything about screams, bleeding flesh, details of pain, or anything else that we might expect from a torture scene (and believe me I do not read that kind of fiction, so I’m just guessing here), we don’t feel immediate horrified empathy. Instead, we’re told about the event from a very clinical viewpoint, and also an artist’s perspective. We are first invited to admire the skill, we applaud the careful work, and only then do we think about the poor suffering ‘client’, and wonder, with increasing horror, what the clinical details actually mean to the nerve endings concerned. It’s very effective, because the displacement of our attention from natural, emotional empathy for the victim to rational admiration for the technical expertise is done solely by the narrative voice, by the torturer himself.
After the distancing, comes the interest in the details of the technique, the rituals, the taught practice, the means of doing the job properly. The torturer is concerned to maintain dignity for all, there is no degradation, but there is also no exceeding or mitigating the sentence handed down. The final, most important effect of the distancing technique is that we never forget that the role of the torturer is to be an officer of the law, a means to enable justice as decided to be enacted. And this leads us to ask, who sets these punishments? What IS this society that maintains torturers to separate verdict and punishment? You will only find out by reading the next three novels. (Caveat: I have tried the second novel, The Claw of the Conciliator, but it lost my interest.)