Archive for the ‘Essay’ Category

The-Plague-Charmer

As the image above shows, this book is another historical fiction novel by the author of Company of Liars, which I read and enjoyed a while ago. It wasn’t a great book but it was an enjoyable enough read, earning a decent four star review here. I was expecting something similarly entertaining and comfortable reading. Nothing too challenging.

And that is what this book offers.

Unlike Liars, which roams across England, The Plague Charmer takes place in a single village of Porlock Weir in Exmoor and the overseeing castle of Porlock Manor in 1361. A village and manor under threat from the onset of the plague and the change in focus to that isolated, tethered, claustrophobic atmosphere was an effective change. The horror of Sara and her family, locked up in their cottage to see whether any had contracted the plague – a genuinely horrific and, I am sure, historically accurate account – was a microcosm of the whole country.

Unfortunately, unlike Liars, it eschews the single narrative voice in favour of leaping – sometimes wildly and unpredictably – between a range of different narrators, sometimes only touching on one narrator for a couple of pages before launching into a  different point of view. We see multiple narrators: Sara, the wife whose family are ravaged by the plague and who watches her husband die and her sons flee; Luke, her son; Will, the dwarf cast out from the Manor and an outcast from the village – a character who owes a debt to George R. R. Martin’s Tyrion Lannister; Matilda, the devout, pious hypocrite; Lady Pavia, a dowager widow fleeing the plague in the Manor; Lady Christina, a disgraced young bride with a son born – somewhat inconveniently – less than nine months after her marriage. The novel, similarly, bounces between different ideas: the historical horrors of the plague; the supernatural threat of Janiveer, the mysterious woman who was rescued from the sea on the day of the eclipse in the opening chapters; the threat of religious extremism and cult.

Altogether, I was underwhelmed by the novel. None of the characters were particularly likeable and the writing was neither crafted nor subtle. Maitland never gives the reader time to settle into the voice of one character before changing again and again; and whole tracts of the novel – Luke and Hob’s story for example – were simply rather tedious and dull and not compensated for by the more tightly written final section.

Maitland does seem very historically convincing in the small details – the idea behind the character Will, the artificial dwarf, is an abhorrent concept, the comprachicos of Victor Hugo’ The Man Who Laughs – but was far less successful in this book than in the earlier Liars.

 

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What’s the bravest thing you ever did?
He spat into the road a bloody phlegm. Getting up this morning, he said.

Yup.
That is how bleak the world of this book is. Tragically, lyrically and devastatingly bleak, but bleak nonetheless. Nothing grows. Nothing lives. The world contains nothing of beauty or of value and very little of utilitarian use. Whilst the man and boy we follow are “good guys”, the rest of the world appears to consist of “bad guys” by which McCarthy means paedophiles, rapists, murderers and cannibals.

The story, such as it is, is ridiculously simple: a man and his son are walking south in search of something. This is narrative stripped bare, stripped to its literal bones. It has the sparseness of a fable or an allegory or a parable and puts me in mind of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress more than anything else.

The setting, however, is science fiction: a post-apocalyptic vision of hopelessness: animal and vegetable life appears to be devastated. The word “dead” occurs so frequently it would be easy to mock. The man and his son are

Treading the dead world under like rats on a wheel. The nights dead still and deader black. So cold….

The road crossed a dried slough where pipes of ice stood out of the frozen mud like formations in a cave. The remains of an old fire by the side of the road. Beyond that a long concrete causeway. A dead swamp. Dead trees standing out of the gray water trailing gray and relic hagmoss.

Again, for me, echoes abound, particularly of Psalm 23

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

The man and boy are very literally walking through the shadow of the the valley of death. I’m not so naive and McCarthy’s not so pedestrian that you can see direct parallels but this novel in which the man and boy “carry the fire” is embedded in these narratives and lyrics of Christian pilgrimage and Christian faith. And it is through that fire that such a bleak novel lives on with such optimism and hope. Throughout the novel, the man’s faith is repeatedly rewarded by hidden caches of food or the remnants of an orchard.

The other story which echoes through my reading of The Road is Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot. The road itself as a symbol; the pair of travellers; the absurdity, beauty and pathos in their interactions.

But the novel goes beyond that Christianity and beyond the evocation of other texts. There is a deeply human relationship between the man and boy, full of the love and hope, the frustration and fear which is so recognisable. And almost unbearably painful: the man’s horror over the gauntness of his son, his sense of inadequacy trying to comfort him, the bleak practicality of his teaching his son how to shoot himself. There is never a shred of doubt that this father would die before allowing harm to come to his son; and would suffer worse than death to allow his son to escape suffering.

And his final words to his son. Oh god. As a dad, that final conversation was worth reading the whole book for. And all delivered in terse almost monosyllabic dialogue.
It can sometimes be hard to think of strong and positive father figures in literature (Atticus Finch, Jean Valjean excepted and I’m sure many others who haven’t come to mind yet…) so I notice them when I come across them. And strong father-son relationships seem even rarer.

Anyway, I digress…

The writing style of the novel is different to the traditional: the sentences are often fragmented and, when not, they are short and simple, only linking clauses together with coordinating conjunctions, the “and” echoing through the prose like the tired footfalls of the protagonists. There is extremely scant use of adverbs. The man and boy are never named. Apostrophes and dialogue markers are omitted sometimes.

I’m more sanguine about that that most of the commentators on Goodreads. The sentence structures work beautifully well and, as I’ve said, contribute to the lyricism in their sparseness. And, even if I mourn the absent apostrophes just a little, this is one of the most hauntingly beautiful books around. A writer who can come up with this line

“If he is not the word of God God never spoke”

should not be criticised because some people would prefer a comma there.

Haunting. Beautiful. Muscular.


Intertextuality is a strange idea.

It’s reasonable and intuitive that texts refer both backwards and forwards within themselves: how many stories and tales begin and end at the same place and setting? Detective fiction is built on the importance of small early details turning into clues to be resolved later. Anton Chekov went so far as to call it a rule:

If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.

As a reader, we’d say that the presence of the gun prefigures its later use. These references are what semioticians might call horizontal.

But the books we read are littered with what the same semioticians might describe as vertical references: references to other preceding texts. Every reference to any pastoral idyll echoes a range of poetry dating back to the Garden of Eden. Learned scholars might say something like

Intertextuality refers to far more than the ‘influences’ of writers on each other. For structuralists, language has powers which not only exceed individual control but also determine subjectivity.

This intertextuality stuff, to those of us who are just readers is, to my mind, anything that reminds us of any other text or style of writing. At its most superficial, it’s almost like a jigsaw puzzle or an in-joke; at its most abstruse, it can inhibit understanding. T. S. Eliot can fall within both these at the same time!

The most obvious example of intertextuality would be a quotation deliberately inserted by the writer. Susan Hill does this at the end of her opening chapter: Kipps recalls but cannot identify the lines

Some say that ever ‘gainst that season comes
Wherein our Saviour’s birth is celebrated,
This bird of dawning singeth all night long;
And then, they say, no spirit dare stir abroad,
The nights are wholesome, then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallow’d and so gracious is the time.

The quotation is from Hamlet and brings to mind the tortuous family relations within Denmark and the rottenness that ensues. It therefore deepens and prefigures the equally tortuous relations within the Drablow family, especially those between mother and child.

The fact of the quotation, however, itself recalls the quotation from Coleridge’s Rime Of The Ancient Marinerthat Dr Frankenstein is put in mind of after his creature rises:

Like one, that on a lonesome road
Doth walk in fear and dread,
And having once turned round walks on,
And turns no more his head;
Because he knows, a frightful fiend
Doth close behind him tread.

As Kipps’ quote introduces key themes, so does Frankenstein’s. And the use of quotations by both characters highlights parallels between them: they are both rational beings catapulted into a world that is not susceptible to legal or scientific scrutiny.

This is not the only parallel with Frankenstein: the opening chapter consists of a ghost story competition, reminiscent of the creation story of Mary Shelley’s invention of Frankenstein; the tales of

“uninhibited castles and of ivy-clad monastery ruins by moonlight, of locked inner rooms and secret dungeons, dank charnel houses and overgrown graveyards”

recounts almost every Gothic trope and cliche including the charnel houses in which Viktor Frankenstein found his “materials”. Even the very framing narrative of older Kipps recalls both the framing narratives of Captain Walton in Frankenstein and of Lockwood in Wuthering Heights.

The entirety of the chapter A Journey North appears to me to be an homage to Dracula: Kipps and Harker are both solicitors clerks heading out of London and into increasingly uncivilised and dangerous terrains, albeit one heading north and the other east; both travel by train (and the train and it’s timetables become so important to Dracula); the carriages, which were originally “as cosy and enclosed as some lamplight study” that becomes nothing more than a “cold tomb of a railway carriage”, recalling the coffins in which Dracula travels.

The In The Nursery chapter introduces the reader to the rhythmic “Bump bump. Bump bump. Bump bump” which is later revealed to be the rocking chair. But the rhythm clearly echoes that of the Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe. Even the title of the chapter Whistle And I’ll Come To You apes the title if M R James’ Oh Whistle And I’ll Come To You, My Lad. The graveyard and monastery around Eel Marsh House cause a wry dismissal of Romantic poetry whilst the house itself reminds Kipps and the reader of “the house of poor Miss Havisham” from Dickens’ Great Expectations.

Brontë, Shelley, Stoker, Dickens, Shakespeare, James, Poe. As well as John Clare and Walter Scott and Victorian novels and Romantic poetry in general. Epistolary narratives embedded in a first person narrative embedded within a framing narrative.

The book – the text – is as haunted by these writers as Kipps is himself! And is that not the point – or at least a point? That there is no such thing as a present without a history behind it? No such thing as a now devoid of then? Nothing original in the world, only old patterns re-worked? This is what those aforementioned semioticians might cite to challenge the entire concept of authorship: is this in any sense Hill’s story more than Shelley’s or Dickens’?

Kipps himself falls into the authorial fallacy: his belief that discovering Jennet Drablow’s story will somehow appease her ghost, “solve” her story as if it were some rational puzzle to demystify and control is shown in the horrific final chapter to be tragically wrong. And it’s a mistake he repeats as he attempts to tame her again in re-telling the tale to us! The stage version of the book delves further into this fallacy: the attempt to rationalise Jennet Drablow out of existence actually summons her into the theatre itself, unleashing her on the director and the audience.