Archive for August, 2012

August 29, 2012

William Mayne, A Grass Rope

A couple of years ago when Mayne died I wrote a bit about my conflicting feelings about him. A couple of weeks ago I reread A Grass Rope and was utterly blown away by it – as I had been the first time.

Last week’s column:


Years ago I wandered into the children’s section of a library and found a couple of things that probably didn’t belong there – including Ian McEwan’s The Child in Time and James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Presumably someone had glanced at the titles, decided that these books were about child characters, and that therefore they were meant for children to read. This is nonsensical of course- some of the best child characters in literature work as well as they do precisely because they’re being read from the perspective of an older reader.  Swami and Friends is great fun to read if you’re Swami’s age, but it’s even better if you’re old enough to see his fears as ridiculous (and yet completely understandable). I struggle on a daily basis to work out what the difference between children’s and adult literature is, all I can really say for certain is that child characters have nothing to do with it.

One of my favourite examples of a book that contrasts ‘child’ and ‘adult’ perspectives is William Mayne’s A Grass Rope which is in all probability a children’s book (it was certainly published as one, and won the Carnegie Medal in 1957). A Grass Rope brings a group of children together to discover the truth of an old legend connected to their families. An ancestor, trying to protect his daughter from an unsuitable lover, locked her up and left her guarded by a pack of hounds and a unicorn. The suitor, calling on magic to help him, managed to lure the hounds and the unicorn into Fairyland and escape with his bride, but he didn’t get his hands on his father-in-law’s fortune. That, in the form of silver chains on the hounds’ collars, had been lost forever.

Various characters in the story have different feelings towards this story. Adam, the oldest, thinks there might be a non-magical explanation and that, were they to solve the mystery, they might be able to recover the treasure. Nan dismisses the whole as just a story, while for Peter and Mary, the two youngest, the story is completely true.

Mary’s unquestioning acceptance of magic comes into conflict with Adam’s insistence on finding a scientific, rational explanation of events. And for most of the book it seems that Adam is right – it is possible to form a reasonable, logical hypothesis for the old legend. It’s through science that the children discover where the hounds might have gone; but it’s Mary who goes through the gate, hoping to dance with the fairies.

Even as Mayne appears to validate Adam’s science, the book is fully alive to the greater beauty of Mary’s stories. One huge fact is left unexplained for the reader, though we are told that there is a possible explanation. And throughout Mary’s experience of the world teeters on the edge of magic.

They walked along in the dusk. The sky hung overhead in colours of new roses; and to the west lavender and marigold; to the east the green of sage and under the cloud that rolled behind the sunset the edge of darkness came on: silver lined like a well edged with daisies.

‘What colour are we?’ said Mary. ‘All grey and white like that dead woodlouse I found under the rug on the landing?’

‘Dream colour’ said Nan.

Mayne is a difficult subject for many lovers of children’s literature. He was one of the finest children’s writers of his generation, but he was also convicted for the sexual abuse of some of his young female fans. Upon his death in 2010 it seemed clear that few people were sure how to speak of him. Yet speak of him we must; not to remind ourselves that artists can be both vile and brilliant (though that’s a useful thing to know) but because we can’t afford to forget that books as good as The Grass Rope have existed.


August 28, 2012

Anne Carson, Antigonick

I had a short review of Anne Carson’s translation in Mint about a week ago. A slightly longer version (with illustrations) below.



Besides the minor change in the title, there’s little about Anne Carson’s translation of Sophokles’ Antigone to indicate that anything unusual is going on. Then on the first page of Antigonick, Antigone and her sister Ismene argue over whether a quote comes from Beckett or Hegel.

Antigone is the daughter of Oidipus, who is dead when the play opens. Also dead are her brothers, Polyneikes who died attacking the city of Thebes and Eteokles who fell defending it. Kreon, ruler of Thebes, has ordered that Eteokles receive a proper burial while the traitor Polyneikes’ body should be left to rot. Kreon’s civil statutes, meant to maintain order in the city, are antithetical to Antigone’s stance on behalf of the importance of kinship. She defies the law, claiming her moral duty to bury her dead, and is sentenced in her turn to death. As is so often the case in Greek tragedy this sets off a series of deaths.

The German philosopher Hegel saw Antigone as a collision between the two extreme positions, neither particularly wrong in itself, taken by Kreon and Antigone.  The tragedy arises from the fact that the two simply cannot co-exist.

It’s obvious from the beginning that this is not a word-for-word translation. Carson strips the dialogue of most of its punctuation and adds large blank spaces of silence, turning the whole into poetry. “SHE WAS THE CHILD IN HER BIRDGRIEF THE BIRD IN HER CHILDREFTGRAVECRY HOWLING AND CURSING SHE POURED DUST ONTO THE BODY WITH BOTH HANDS SHE POURED WATER ONTO THE BODY WITH BOTH HANDS I SEIZED HER”, says the usually flippant guard who catches Antigone.  “YOUR SOUL IS BLOWING APART”, says the chorus, a single line in the centre of an otherwise blank page.

Kreon arrives in a motor boat and there are anachronistic references to later writers (Samuel Beckett and Virginia Woolf among them). There is even a new character; the mute “Nick” remains on the stage for the entire duration of the play, but is only mentioned once, in the stage directions. Yet Carson is only ever credited as the translator, rather than the adaptor or re-interpreter of Antigonick. In a way, there is nothing here that is not in the original, but we are not reading this in Sophokles’ Athens. A reader of the Antigone in 2012 will come to the play with the history of the last few centuries behind her; our reading of the play cannot but include Hegel’s as well.

Frequently it seems that the characters are all aware of this. Ismene reminds Antigone of Brecht’s adaptation which had Antigone carrying a door strapped to her back. Antigone prompts Kreon (“ANTIGONE:  NEXT WORD IS DEATH   KREON: DEATH”). Eurydike, Kreon’s wife, is barely given a few lines in Sophokles; here in an extended monologue she ponders the lack of space given to her character and even spoofs her own stage directions.

Eurydike is the only character to raise the question of “Nick”. “HAVE YOU HEARD THIS EXPRESSION THE NICK OF TIME WHAT IS A NICK”. In tragedy there is no nick of time, there is no last minute aversion of disaster. There’s a rueful inevitability about all the characters (except Kreon, who sometimes seems to have lost the script). They have lived out this story before, through all of its many adaptations. They know they’re going to die.

Bianca Stone’s illustrations, printed on transparent vellum to overlay the text, are full of a sense of opposing, irreconcilable forces. Cosy domestic scenes are juxtaposed with wild, uncontrollable ones –a horse knocks over a dining table and is later hobbled by a spool of ordinary thread; a human body bursts, Alice in Wonderland-like, out of a house too small for it; wedding cakes and staircases sit incongruously in wild landscapes. Here too we find the anachronisms of the text – the very twentieth century houses and furniture – and is that a Star Trek uniform?


Look, I just really like looking at QuintoSpock, okay

Stone’s illustrations and the hand-lettered text make Antigonick a beautiful object, and it’s easy to forget that it is a play, and meant to be performed. But it’s also clear that the play is not lacking in dramatic power, with the perfect comic timing of some of the exchanges, the lyricism of the prose and the silent figure of Nick measuring in the background. Is Antigonick then the synthesis of Nick, who measures, and Antigone who is immeasurable? I’m not sure.


For a far better, deeper analysis of the play I’d suggest Pierce Penniless’ essay here.

August 21, 2012

Ronald Searle, St Trinian’s: The Entire Appalling Business

In last week’s Left of Cool column I talked about school stories. Again.

(I’d apologise to those of you who are sick of hearing me do this, but …no.)



I grew up on tales of English boarding schools, and I don’t regret it. I think this is true for many of us. At the unlikeliest moments casual acquaintances will reveal themselves to have a secret horde of Angela Brazil books or something similar; and recently I read a historical romance novel whose setting the author claimed was directly inspired by Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers. This history we have with the school story is probably one of the (many) factors behind the success of the Harry Potter books; if you leave out the wands and the mortal peril (and not necessarily the latter at that) it’s all very familiar.

However much we love it, the school story is often so earnest that it’s just crying out to be mocked. Some of the best writers in the genre are those who poke fun at it gently even as they write within it – P. G. Wodehouse (whose Mike marks the first appearance of the character Psmith) and Antonia Forest are among them. Last year I used this space to talk about Dick Beresford’s The Uncensored Boys’ Own, a parody from the 1990s of boys school stories. Many readers will also hopefully be familiar with Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle’s Molesworth books, documenting life at St Custard’s school through the unique syntax of young Nigel Molesworth. Molesworth (or a very good imitation of him) is also on twitter, currently providing extensive coverage of the Olympics as @reelmolesworth.

The Molesworth books are certainly among the things for which the artist Ronald Searle is best known. But Searle created another school through his art, and one that is probably a bit more famous: St Trinian’s.

St. Trinian’s is a school for delinquent schoolgirls. Searle’s schoolgirls all carry those markers of the traditional school story heroine – the gym tunic and the hockey stick. But they also look miserably at the broken bottle of whiskey as they unpack their school trunks, they carry concealed weapons (“Some little girl didn’t hear me say ‘unarmed combat’”), and they are willing to put those hockey sticks to far more practical uses.

English schoolgirls are parodied all over literature as overly hearty, humourless and hockey-playing. There’s a lot to be said, though most of it is rather obvious, about the fact that the earnest, humourless schoolgirl rather than the earnest, humourless schoolboy is all over popular culture in the earlier decades of the twentieth century. Naturally, parodies that turned the capable women of less comic literature into sexually precocious, violent criminals were going to be a hit. The first St Trinian’s cartoon was published in 1941 but most came after the war; by 1954 the first film had been made. As of 2012 there have been seven St Trinian’s films. A number of prominent (male) authors got in on the joke – Wyndham Lewis, Robert Graves and Cecil Day-Lewis among them.

But though the popularity of the cartoons and the films has its origin partly in sexism, St Trinian’s has always felt to me like liberation. Searle may have been riffing off a tradition of mocking the schoolgirl, but unlike most parodists he made his characters smart. The St Trinian’s girl doesn’t despise brute force (whether a well-aimed hockey stick or a cannonball), but she’s capable of much more. She will distill her own poisons in the school chemistry lab, or read up on the shrinking of human heads.

Perhaps even more importantly, the school is a safe space for its students. You can be ugly at St Trinian’s, you can be fat, you can be bad at sports, or you can be too interested in boys (or presumably girls, though I don’t think Searle ever made that clear); as long as you’re sufficiently badly-behaved you’ll fit right in. In one cartoon, two members of staff pick their way through a sea of unconscious girls (empty bottles all around them) without batting an eye. For those of us who could in our youths have done with a more tolerant community for imperfect schoolgirls, this is almost a miracle.


August 16, 2012

July Reading

I read some books in July:


Susan Cooper, The Dark is Rising, Greenwitch, The Grey King, The Silver on the Tree: It’s been a few years since my last read of this series, and I’m so glad I found the time to do it this month. Last month I talked about how well the first book in the series works as a standalone. For obvious reasons this is untrue of the rest; with the second book in the series the sunlit feeling of the first is gone. Of all the series Greenwitch and The Grey King were the ones I remembered best before this reread. Having finished it I think they’re still my favourites. Both are imbued with this tremendous sense of melancholy and remoteness. It’s another matter that my reread of the series clarified for me what I’m going to be doing with my life for the next couple of years.

Terry Pratchett, Witches Abroad: Another reread, mostly because I had a free afternoon and wanted to spend it in bed with a book. Is it sacrilegious to complain that Pratchett is a little too preoccupied with the power of stories? I don’t think there’s been a Discworld book that wasn’t about this in years – though Witches Abroad certainly does it well.

Tove Jansson, Moominvalley in November: I embarked upon a reread of the Moomin books a few months ago. Moominvalley in November does not actually contain any Moomins; it’s about the valley in their absence. Lovely, quiet, melancholy. Not my favourite of the series (that’s Moominland Midwinter) but then, all of the books are wonderful.

Jan Morris, Last Letters from Hav, Hav of the Myrmidons: I’d read the first of these before, and thought the placing of the city in our own history was brilliant. Rereading it I was struck this time by how cleverly it works as a travelogue. In part I think this impression is enhanced by Hav of the Myrmidons, in which “Jan” is forced to engage politically with the city and its history in ways that could be avoided in the earlier book. Together I think the two work brilliantly.

Christopher Priest, The Islanders: Like the Hav books, The Islanders is a travelogue-of-sorts of places that doesn’t exist. It’s in that capacity that I’ve written about the two of them together (those of you who read the Indian edition of The National Geographic Traveller will be hearing all about this in September). But The Islanders is crying out for other readings as well, and I’m itching to go back to it and explore other angles. It’s non-linear, has multiple layers of unreliable narrators, is part murder investigation part love story, has a horror story right there in the middle; it’s a joy to think about..

T.H. White, Mistress Masham’s Repose: I wrote about this here.

Karen Lord, Redemption in Indigo: I wrote about this here.

Carolyn Mackler, The Earth, My Butt and Other Big Round Things: Mackler’s protagonist is a teenaged girl who is overweight. I’d heard a lot about this book and how it deals with the issues around fat, and on the whole I think it does a better job than mot things. A strong, cleverly done coming of age narrative, and one I thoroughly enjoyed.

Lorna Hill, Dancing Peel: Somehow, during the course of an otherwise quite ordinary childhood reading, I managed to miss all of the Sadler’s Wells books. As a result this was my first Lorna Hill book. Presumably the Sadler’s Wells books would be more to my taste (I hear intriguing things of this character Sebastian?) but Dancing Peel did nothing for me.

Georgette Heyer, The Unknown Ajax: In which Heyer talks a bit about class and has a character be deliberately gauche in the face of high society snobbery. But then it turns out he’s rich and went to Harrow, so there’s really no conflict after all. Not likely to cause a revolution then, but funny enough that I’ll forgive it that.

Rahul Roy, A Little Book on Men: I wrote about this here.

Grace Burrowes, Lady Sophie’s Christmas Wish: I’ve probably said everything there is to say about Burrowes over the last few months. Though I find myself wishing we could have one romance heroine who doesn’t really really really want to have children. That’s not so much to ask, is it?

Eloisa James, When Beauty Tamed the Beast: I’ve been enjoying James’ series of fairytale reinterpretations (I think The Ugly Duchess is out this month). This isn’t my favourite in the series, but as its inspirations include House and Malory Towers and there’ a manservant called Prufrock, there’s enough in there to keep me entertained. Other literary/popcultural references include one to the Sarah Gorely books which are so important a part of Julia Quinn’s fictional Regency London. And there’s a scene near the end when the Beauty (not the Beast) has to have all her skin sloughed off that reminded me of an Angela Carter short story (“The Tiger’s Bride”, I think).

Willem Elsschot, Cheese: I wrote about this here.

John Mortimer, Rumpole and the Primrose Path: There are days when Rumpole is necessary. This is the last Rumpole book, and I was occasionally a bit disoriented by how recent it felt with its references to things like ipods (I feel like I’ve said this about one of the other late Rumpole books before). But still, deeply comforting and great fun to read.

August 12, 2012

Karen Lord, Redemption in Indigo

There are a lot of reasons to like Redemption in Indigo, and “it has personality”  is probably the most non-specific imaginable. Yet this was my favourite thing about it; it’s charming, it’s clever, but more than anything it is very much itself.


From last week’s Left of Cool column.


Months ago I used this space to talk about Joan Aiken’s collection of short stories, The Monkey’s Wedding. “The Monkey’s Wedding” is, apparently, one of many phrases used to describe the weather when it is raining but the sun is shining at the same time. Another, according to author Karen Lord, is “… the devil and his wife are fighting for the cou-cou stick”. It’s this image, of an immortal being and an ordinary woman struggling over a cooking implement, that is at the heart of Lord’s novel Redemption in Indigo.

Based on a Senegalese folk tale Redemption in Indigo tells the story of Paama, a brilliant cook with a glutton for a husband. Ansige’s uncontrollable appetite gets him into a number of awkward situations, from which his wife extricates him with great ingenuity. It’s Paama’s conduct towards her embarrassing husband that convinces two immortal beings, or Djombis, that she is a fit person, of all humans, to hold the chaos stick. The stick (to all appearances an ordinary cooking implement) allows its wielder to summon any one of thousands of possible futures at any time. Naturally the original bearer of this power, a mysterious indigo-skinned djombi is less than pleased. He must now convince Paama to give the stick back to him.

Redemption in Indigo situates itself firmly in an oral tradition of storytelling with its opening lines: “A rival of mine once complained that my stories begin awkwardly and end untidily”. This narrator will continue to comment on the story throughout the book; reminding the reader, for example, that she will have to suspend belief if she wants things to make sense. “For that matter, do you think an arachnid with mouthparts is capable of articulating the phrase ‘I am a pawnbroker’ in any known human language?” Late in the book Lord introduces a storyteller as a minor character. There’s no indication that this man is the teller of this story – in avoiding that rather obvious little narrative trick Lord makes more real a world in which tellers of tales are a part of the landscape. Stories that are constantly commenting upon themselves often risk sounding coy, but here the form seems perfectly integrated with the setting.

And yet this nameless narrator’s rival is quite right. There’s something untidy about this book and its refusal to wrap itself up neatly in any reasonably widely-accepted genre or style. A good portion of the book is just a story of village life, told with a sly sense of humour. Ansige’s wildly exaggerated appetite belongs to a comic tradition that is quite separate from the dreamlike one in which Paama and the djombi move through time and space. There’s an element of science fictionality brought in by the conceit of the chaos stick, loosely rooted as it is in quantum theory. There are entire stories left untold about the complicated relationships between the djombi , but the book tells us to look away and concentrate on the humans.

Then there’s Paama herself. In another novel she’d be the dull example- the good wife who cooks, is quiet and does her duty. Yet there’s something compelling about her and her active commitment to doing what she thinks right. I doubt Lord was thinking of Jane Eyre when she wrote Paama, but for me the two have much in common as great moral heroines.

I use the word ‘moral’ here because towards the end the book pre-emptively dismisses “those who utterly, utterly fear the dreaded Moral of the Story”. In the event, Redemption in Indigo isn’t quite the didactic book that it signals it might be. But if it begins awkwardly and ends untidily, if it throws its support firmly behind its main character, it proudly embraces all these aspects of the story that it is. This is a book that could not exist any other way.



August 12, 2012

Willem Elsschot, Cheese

Cheese was a gift from my friend Alie, who has suffered through my cheese-shopping every time I’ve visited her.


From a column a couple of weeks ago. The original version contained references to The Simpsons, Lily Allen and Camus. In retrospect, it’s probably a good thing that wordcount constraints forced me to take them out.


For obvious reasons a picture has been circulating over the last few days on the internet, claiming that it is easier for people in the USA to buy guns than to buy French cheese, which is illegal. It turns out that this is not entirely true; cheeses made from raw milk that have not been aged a minimum amount of time are banned. So Americans can still buy newer or less ‘authentic’ sorts made from pasteurised milk. Apparently people have in the past contracted illnesses from raw milk cheese (guns, presumably, have never harmed anyone). The point of all this is that cheese can be very dangerous, even if you’ve never dropped a wheel of Gouda on your foot.

That is certainly the case in Willem Elsschot’s novel Cheese (Kaas in the original Dutch). Frans Laarmans is a middle-class, married man who works as a clerk in Antwerp. Despite his constant fears about how others see him, Laarmans seems reasonably content until becomes entangled with the rich Van Schoonbeke and his friends whose lifestyles and conversation intimidate him. Acting on a tip from Van Schoonbeke, Laarmans switches professions, becoming the Belgian representative of a company selling Edam cheese. There are obvious problems with this plan from the start; Laarmans has never sold anything in his life. And he doesn’t like cheese.

In no time at all then, Laarmans finds himself in possession of two tonnes of Edam, with no idea of what to do with it. As the situation snowballs into something further and further out of his control he is elected Vice President of the Association of Belgian Cheese Merchants, and gains more and more respect from Van Schoonbeke’s friends. Not knowing anything about his own profession does not seem to be harming Laarmans’ social prospects, as long as he has office stationery with an impressive letterhead. But the fact of those two tonnes of cheese is always on his mind. He takes to the most childish of measures, including pretending not to be home when his boss comes to visit.

In his introduction to my edition of Cheese, translator Paul Vincent mentions that Elsschot refused permission for a stage adaptation of the book because he was “afraid [the producer] will play it for laughs”. This seems strange at first; it’s obvious that this is a comic novel. But there’s also something very recognisable about Laarmans’ panic.

Logically I know that this feeling of being completely out of one’s depth (professionally and personally), of constantly teetering on the edge of utter failure has plagued people of every generation. Yet it seems somehow remarkable to me that Cheese was published in 1933. When Laarmans procrastinates over selling his cheese and focuses instead on the minutiae of setting up his office (the perfect desk, the right sort of typewriter, the ideal letterhead) I know exactly what he is doing. His conviction that everyone around him somehow knows more than he does about what he is doing is a form of Imposter Syndrome – it’s clear (though not to Laarmans) that most of them are as far out of their depth as he is. Then there’s the constant self-consciousness, and Laarmans’ need to justify his own reactions at all times. At his mother’s deathbed at the beginning of the book  he is preoccupied throughout the proceedings with questions of how much grief he should show and how people will judge him for the amount he does display.

It’s this familiarity that makes it clear to me how vulnerable Laarmans is, so that when he adopts a more pompous tone (he often attempts to patronise his wife) it’s clear to me what he is doing.

There are no unhappy endings here, despite the fact that disaster seems imminent for most of the book. But Elsschot was right; this isn’t just a comedy. Laarmans’ panic is familiar and all too real.



August 1, 2012

Rahul Roy, A Little Book on Men

I’m beginning to think I should have a separate bookshelf for things that people have bought, stopped by my house after bookshopping and accidentally left there. Trisha, if you’re reading this, you left your Little Book on Men at my place a few months ago.

From last week’s column:


“Men don’t talk about what it means to be a man,” says Gautam Bhan in his introduction to Rahul Roy’s A Little Book on Men. Bhan acknowledges, rightly, that the reason discussions of gender are dominated by discussions of women is a function of history. Men have been the mainstream for so long that we rarely think about how people are socialised into being men, and what masculinity means.

And yet, these are questions that are becoming more and more crucial. In India, the social position of women has been changing drastically over the last couple of decades. What does this mean for our collective understanding of masculinity? To what extent is masculine behaviour a result of biology and how much of it is learned? What are the institutions through which we come to our ideas of what masculinity entails?

A Little Book on Men brings together some of these questions. Rahul Roy is a maker of documentary films, and the book uses a variety of media – poetry and prose, quotes from academics, posters (of both the filmy and the “ideal boy” variety) and collage. In addition, there are illustrations throughout “in black, white and gray” by Anupama Chatterjee and Sherna Dastur. A series of interviews with a group of young men is rendered in comic format, with the photographs arranged in panels and overlaid with text. The cover page has a border made up of pictures of boys of different identities; “Christian”, “Gujarati”, “Bengali”, “Kerala Boy”.

Over and over Roy makes the point that there is no single unified idea of masculinity, and that there are alternative models that prize such ideas as non-violence. In one section he discusses the potential of “female masculinities”; this is accompanied by a poster of “Great Men Of India” that includes Indira Gandhi and Rani Lakshmi Bai.

Yet if there is a greater diversity within masculinities than might at first seem to be the case, it’s also true that some of their more common manifestations are a bit alarming. As Roy notes, masculinities “have been identified as a rather toxic part of our social life”. A collage early in the book juxtaposes newspaper headlines with a patchwork of images. Most of the headlines seem connected to violence – violence against women, violence against dalits, religious violence, naxalite violence. The images in the background are of fireworks boxes, action figures, toy guns. Roy points out that this is because men are the principal actors in a violent society.

But as a woman, and particularly after a spate of recent news stories, I’m bound to pay attention to men’s attitudes towards gender. The back cover of Roy’s book suggests “fewer rapes” as a goal for which it might be necessary for men to change. The young men (Aman, Munna, Tony and Ravi) whom the book engages in conversation have trouble talking to girls and worry about satisfying future partners in bed, but they also believe that women say no when they mean yes, and seriously discuss whether or not they will have to beat their future wives to keep them in order. One of the headlines at the beginning of the book had already stated that close to 1 in 5 married women has experienced domestic violence.

The unusual format of A Little Book on Men allows the book to address a broader spectrum of issues than it might have otherwise, but it doesn’t allow for any of them to be entered into with great depth. This is understandable; it’s not an academic work (or not wholly one) and doesn’t claim to lay out a framework for masculinity studies as a discipline. What it does do, and do quite well, is to highlight the need for this area of study, and offer some useful potential starting points.