Discovering Barbara Comyns…

The Vet’s Daughter by Barbara Comyns

comyns vetsThis is the first novel by Comyns that I’ve read. I chose The Vet’s Daughter as one of two ideal starting points recommended by Simon, (the other was Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead).  I can say that it won’t be the last novel by her that I’ll read – well, I did buy a set of three and thus have Our Spoons Came From Woolworths and Sisters by a River already waiting.  I had no idea what to expect really, despite seeing a lot of love for this novel around the blogosphere …

The story is told by Alice, the daughter of a vet (obviously, I know). It is set in Edwardian times, and she lives with her parents in South London. The household is ruled with a rod of iron by her father.  Alice and her mother are not abused but are treated as mere drudges for the most part, and her father has little to do with either of them, taking all his meals in the front room surgery.

The day was nearly over and it was like most of the days I could remember: all overshadowed by my father and cleaning the cats’ cages and the smell of cabbage and my father’s scent. There were moments of peace, and sometimes sunlight outside. It was like that all the time.

One thing it appears that Alice’s father can’t cope with is death. People bring animals to him to be put down – he sells them on to a vivisectionist. When Alice’s mother becomes ill, he can’t cope with that either and avoids them even more, disappearing up to the pub, or out with a lady friend. When Alice’s mother dies, she is soon replaced by Rosa, a bawdy bar-maid who treats Alice badly. Poor Alice is confused and lonely, and has to get away. She is friendly with a locum vet, Henry Peebles, indeed she has the beginnings of a romantic infatuation with him. When he suggests she becomes a companion for his frail mother in Hampshire, she jumps at the chance, but Henry’s mother is mad and abused by the housekeeper. Alice’s confusion gets worse, and she discovers that she can channel this into psychic energy by levitating. I’m not giving this away as the clue is on the front cover of this edition of the book.

And then in the night it happened again and I was floating, definitely floating. The moonlight was streaming whitely through the window, and I could see the curtains gently flapping in the night wind. I’d left my bed, and except for a sheet, the clothes lay scattered on the floor. I gently floated about the room. Sometimes I went very close to the ceiling, but I wouldn’t touch it in case it made me fall to the ground. …
I don’t know how long I remained in the air like that; I should imagine about seven minutes. Then I can remember a feeling of great exhaustion stealing over me, and a longing for my bed. I willed myself down to it and it happened quite gently: one moment there was nothing beneath me but air, and then I felt my still warm mattress. I lay there almost fainting with tiredness before I could creep out and collect the blankets. Then a deep and dreamless sleep enveloped me.

Henry will turn out not to be ‘the one’, and Alice ends up back in Lambeth with her father, and increasingly troubled…

Given that this novel was first published in 1959, I somehow expected the levitation to be a dream but it was all quite real with Alice channelling her hurt and anger into a meditative state.  Back in the late 19th century, the Victorians thrilled in the supernatural; Madame Blavatsky and the Theosophists believed it could be explained by the earth’s magnetic field.  Fake mediums got big business from their elaborate ruses at séances.  Additionally, there have always been accounts of supernatural levitation through the centuries – sometimes seen as a transcendental state, other times caused by demonic posession – Alice’s being the former.

There is the nightmare quality of Alice’s life too. This is a very dark novel, owing much to the 19th century’s Gothic and sensation novels, a domestic story full of high drama. I did struggle to understand Alice’s father a bit. He is never physically abusive to her, but she is neglected, treated like an animal and never shown any signs of love until it is too late. Mind you, there’s not much evidence in the book that he’s much of a vet either, let alone being a nasty father.  We must remember that Alice is a young girl though, and it is her version of events that we are reading. That’s not to say it is wrong, but there is a certain naivety in parts and ironically given its darkness, moments of humour too.

The VMC edition has a foreword by Jane Gardam, as well as the author’s introduction which were both fascinating.  I shall definitely be reading more novels by Comyns – another great discovery thanks to the blogosphere. (9/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon, please click below:
The Vet’s Daughter: A Virago Modern Classic (VMC) by Barbara Comyns, VMC paperback.

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What the new Hoffmann addict read on Christmas Day …

The Nutcracker & The Strange Child by E.T.A. Hoffmann, translated by Anthea Bell

Nutcracker

My mum was a huge ballet fan, and it was a much-anticipated Christmas treat to be taken to London to the ballet to see The Nutcracker, preferably at the Royal Opera House for a grander experience and better tree (see below). It was my favourite of the Christmas ballets; although I got to see bigger ballet stars in Cinderella or The Sleeping Beauty in other years, I loved The Nutcracker the best.

I had two favourite bits – The Russian Dance in Act II for the music and dancing, but for the real WOW! moment – it’s got to be when everyone’s gone to bed except Clara and Drosselmeier, and the Christmas tree grows.

See this clip from the 2008 production at the ROH – That’s how to do the tree properly!

I was thinking of this as I read the original story of The Nutcracker this Christmas, another classic fairy tale by German Romantic author ETA Hoffmann, whom I discovered a couple of weeks ago for the first time when I read The Sandman, (reviewed here).  Needless to say the ballet is based upon a dumbed-down version written for children by Alexandre Dumas (père), and Hoffmann’s original is much darker.

It is a family Christmas, and Fritz and Marie (Clara in the ballet) are enjoying the presents brought by their Godfather Drosselmeier who makes automata and clockwork toys.

Legal Councillor Drosselmeier ws not a handsome man; he was small and thin, with a wrinkled face, and he had a big black patch over his right eye. He was bald, so he wore a very fine white wig made of glass, a most ingenious piece of work. Councillor Drosselmeier was a very ingenious man himself. He knew all about clocks, and could even make them. So if one of the fine clocks in the Stahmbaums’ house went wrong, and its chimes failed to ring out, Godfather Drosselmeier came to call, took off his glass wig, removed his yellow coat, tied a blue apron around his waist and poked at the insides of the clockwork with various pointed instruments. …

When Councillor Drosselmeier came visiting he always had something pretty for the children in his bag, sometimes a little manikin that could roll its eyes and bow – that was a comical sight – sometimes a box with a little bird that hopped out of it, sometimes another toy. But at Christmas he had always made them something that was particularly elaborate and had meant a great deal of work for him, and once he had given it to the children their parents put it away and took care of it.

Tiring of the toys, Drosselmeier produces a nutcracker in the shape of a man who cracks nuts with his teeth. It is not a pretty toy, but Marie is drawn to it – Fritz grabs it and breaks it, and Marie nurses the toy.  Fritz had been taunting Marie earlier about mice in the skirting boards, and when she falls asleep the toys come to life and the toy soldiers fight the Mouse King who has seven heads. Her Godfather Drosselmeier appears as an evil owl on the mice’s side. Overwhelmed, the Nutcracker seems doomed so Marie throws her shoe at the Mouse King saving him.

She awakes to find it all a dream – or was it?  Godfather Drosselmeier tells the children the story of Princess Pirlipat and the hardest nut to crack, which explains why nutcrackers are ugly. Marie loves the Nutcracker doll, and at night the Mouse King returns and together they defeat him and the Nutcracker is revealed to be an enchanted Prince. He takes Marie to the Kingdom of Toys where all the lands are named after candies and they are betrothed in due course.

Hoffmann obviously had an interest about mechanical toys and automata – indeed the brief notes at the end of the volume confirm this . Toys coming to life have long been the stuff of nightmares (especially in films like Magic and the ones with that Chucky doll in). I liked that the toys in The Nutcracker’s case were on the side of good as in Toy Story, and the evil monsters came from the ‘real’ world. It was perfect Christmas reading.

This edition from Pushkin Press paired The Nutcracker with a lesser known tale from Hoffmann – The Strange Child. This is the tale of two children who live in the country and have a wonderful life running wild in the woods. One day their rich relatives come to visit from the city, bringing gifts of toys. and tell their parents that they will send a schoolmaster for the children.  Meanwhile, the children abandon their new toys in the woods, preferring natural pursuits, when they meet a strange child who becomes their new playmate.  When their new evil tutor arrives, the children are banned from the woods, confining them to the stuffy schoolroom and the tutor scares them stiff, buzzing around them like a fly. I won’t say how it ends, except that it’s suitably Gothic and moralistic.

I adored the Nutcracker, and enjoyed the much darker Strange Child too, my reading enhanced by the lovely quality of the Pushkin Press edition.  I’m going to get some more tales of Hoffmann, and revisit some of his contemporaries, notably the Brothers Grimm, too to compare the style.

So another Hit from Hoffmann! (9/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Nutcracker The Strange Child (Pushkin Collection) by ETA Hoffmann, Pushkin Press 2010 translated by Anthea Bell, 206 pages.

Mr Sandman, bring me a dream …

The Sandman by ETA Hoffmann, translated by Christopher Moncrieff

sandman

I’m slightly familiar with the 19th century author E.T.A. Hoffmann through adaptations of his on the stage: the ballets Coppélia by Delibes, and Christmas evergreen The Nutcracker, also Offenbach’s opéra fanastique, The Tales of Hoffmann – but I’ve never read any of the source stories before. Alma classics has just published a new translation The Sandman, and sent me a copy to read.

The Sandman of Hoffmann’s imagination is nothing like that in the song by the Chordettes from 1954 win which the girls ask for certain qualities in their dream male:

“Give him a pair of eyes with a come-hither gleam,
Give him a lonely heart like Pagliacci,
And lots of wavy hair like Liberace.”

That interpretation derives from the nice Sandman in Hans Christian Andersen’s story (1841), in which he sprinkles sand or dust on children’s eyes to send them off to sleep and give them good dreams.

Hoffmann’s earlier version from 1815 is truly nasty – a complete opposite.  The boy Nathanael is traumatised as a child when his nurse tells him about the Sandman who throws sand in the eyes of children who won’t sleep and this makes their eyes fall out which the Sandman collects to take to the moon as food for his children who have beaks and peck at them.

See – there are two sides to every story!

Hoffmann’s tale starts with letters to and from Nathanael, now a young man, to the brother of his fiancée Clara, in which he recounts episodes from his childhood when his beloved father had a regular visitor in the evenings. That was Doctor Coppelius, and together they carry out alchemical experiments. Nathanael hides in his father’s room and when discovered Coppelius threatens to blind him with embers from the fire. A year later his father is killed in one of their experiments and Coppelius disappears. So a terrified Nathanael equates Coppelius with the Sandman. Then one day an Italian barometer salesman called Guiseppe Coppola appears, and Nathanael is convinced he is Coppelius in another guise and all his old fears are reawakened.

Nathanael is spiralling into depression and his relationship with Clara and her brother Lothario is threatened, especially when he becomes besotted with Olimpia, the beautiful doll-like daughter of Spalanzani, whom he sees in the opposite window… Anyone who has seen Coppélia or The Tales of Hoffman, will be familiar with the second half of this story which features in both.

I loved that in the best metafictional tradition, the author inserts himself into the story as the narrator and friend of Nathanael …

…I have done my utmost to begin Nathanael’s story in a meaningful, original and moving way: “Once upon a time” – the finest possible opening for a tale, too prosaic! “In the small provincial town of S., there lived …” Slightly better – at least it builds up to a climax. Or why not medias in res*: “‘Let him go to the devil,’ exclaimed the student Nathanael, his eyes filled with horror and rage as the barometer salesman Guiseppe Coppola …” In fact this is what I had already written, believing that I sensed something comical in Nathanael’s wild eyes – although the story is not exactly amusing. I couldn’t think of an expression that even began to reflect the glorious colours of the inner portraits, so I decided not to try. So, gentle reader, take the three letters that his friend Lothar kindly entrusted to me as a brief outline of the picture to which, by now telling the story I will endeavour to add more and more colour.

* Medias in res – a quote from Horace – in the midst of things.

This edition includes a fascinating extract from an essay by Siegmund Freud after the short tale. Freud subjects the tale to psychoanalysis, interpreting Nathanael’s fears of losing his eyes as a common, albeit terrible childhood dream, and goes on to cite blindings in literature and more. This was a big bonus to this slight volume, indeed my only regret was that there weren’t more of Hoffmann’s tales included. (9.5/10)

The end result of reading this novella is, of course, an immediate desire to read everything else Hoffmann wrote, there are two more on Alma Classics’ list. However, being a collector of luxury editions of fairy tales, I’d love it if the Folio Society would ‘do’ Hoffmann!).

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Source: Publisher – Thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Sandman (Alma Classics) by ETA Hoffmann, pub Alma classics, new translation Dec 2013, paperback, approx 100 pages.

Scary reads for Halloween

Today I thought I’d pick out a few books from my archive that would make scary reading for Halloween tomorrow. I know, more recycling of posts, but it’s fun for me to look back at my blog, and maybe you’ll find a book you might like to read too. The links are to my reviews in the text, and where you can buy at the bottom.

Firstly, a book for all ages (well for brave 8yrs+):

Moviewatch - Coraline (3D)

Coraline by Neil Gaiman.  This is a deliciously scary children’s novel that is destined to become an absolute classic. Think Clive Barker for kids, but with a sense of humour and you’re about there.  The animated film is rather wonderful too.  I never thought I’d get scared of everyday items of haberdashery, but Coraline will do that for you (see the bottom of this post if you dare!)

Now for a grown-up novel about werewolves:

red moonRed Moon by Benjamin Percy. Imagine a post 9/11 America into which a new threat has emerged to fuel a nation’s paranoia. It’s the age of the werewolf, or Lycans as Percy dubs them.  Percy’s take on the werewolf genre is firmly grounded in the real world rather than the paranormal which does add a genuinely different feel to this novel. His new approach takes the paranormal out of lycanthropy, and creates a grisly and gritty horror-thriller of speculative fiction.

… and IMHO the best vampire book yet written:

lettherightoneinLet the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist. When I came to this Nordic vampire novel, I found something truly dark and horrific that needed a strong stomach and nerves of steel. It is a real contemporary chiller, full of violence and gore, totally relentless – yet at its heart is a the redemptive relationship between a twelve year old boy and a 200 year old vampire frozen into the body of a young girl. A bit long, but stunningly plotted and easily the equal of the best Scandicrime novels.

I shall finish with a classic:

jekyllDr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by R L Stevenson. I love novels about mad professors – and this is the daddy of them all. Most of us in the modern age will know the essential twist but there is so much more to Stevenson’s clever story than that. The edition I read also contained two very Gothic short stories by Stevenson too – The Body Snatcher and Markheim – both brilliant also.

What scary books are you reading for Halloween?

34154-coralinephoto

You can button your own eyes at Coraline.com Click on the portrait in the house …

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To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below (affiliate link):
Coraline by Neil Gaiman
Red Moon by Benjamin Percy
Let the Right One In John Ajvide Lindqvist
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson

Gothic with a twist

Isabel’s Skin by Peter Benson

isabel's skinPeter Benson is one of those underrated British authors that never write the same book twice. Each novel is different. I’ve only read one of his before: that was Odo’s Hanging about the commissioning of the Bayeux Tapestry published in the mid 1990s. Lately he’s been best known for Two Cows and a Vanful of Smoke, a contemporary novel about lads and weed. With Isabel’s Skin, he’s doing something different again – a gothic tale set in Edwardian England.

The story is narrated by David Morris, a quiet man who describes himself thus:

I used to be a book valuer. I was employed by an auction house. I was trusted, respected and pleased. I lived in London in comfortable rooms, and I had money in the bank. I lived alone, and although I had friends and acquaintances, I was not close to any of them. I had brown hair and blue eyes. … My rooms were on the top floor of a house close by Highbury Fields. Beyond, to the north and west, spread the swelling slums of the city and their cloaks and dresses of smoke and filth. I did not know these places, and I tried to keep them at a distance. I confess my ignorance, though my ignorance was not bred of disinterest. I believed the ragged should live in the minds of the fortunate, but I was still – and thought I would always be – a top-floor man.

David is asked to go to rural Somerset to value the library of a recently deceased book collector. From the moment he gets off the train and finds a ride to get to the remote village of Ashbrittle, you know that we are in Gothic spine-chiller territory. It happens every time someone comes from the city to the country in this type of novel.

Abandoned by the carter, he’s warned by an urchin not to go to Ashbrittle, but finally reaches Belmont House, now closed up with just the housekeeper in residence. He discovers the library is full of rare books of great value, but must do his cataloguing in gloom – Lord Buff-Orpington never opened the window shutters.  This doesn’t bother David, for he is soon in reveries over the volumes in the collection. So we’ve added the house and house-keeper to the Gothic equation. Where’s the ghost, or prisoner in the attic?  Benson is not going to be that obvious.

It’s not until David goes out for a walk, (inexorably drawn in the wrong direction of course), that things happen.  He meets Professor Hunt who lives close by, and they have a civil conversation. Morris asks the Professor what he does.

‘I do not do, young man. I work. I create.’
‘My apologies. What do you create, Prefessor Hunt?’
‘I would not tell you, even if I could. But siffice to say it is a marvel.’ I thought he was going to continue, but he stopped suddenly, looked straight into my eyes and shool his head.
‘I see,’ I said.
‘No,’ he said, ‘you do not. How could you?’
‘I …’
‘How could you even begin to see?’
‘I didn’t mean to imply…’
‘I am sure you didn’t.’
‘… that I know…’
‘Of course you didn’t,’ he said and he turned, bowed politely, took a couple of steps back, and before I had the chance to ask him anything else, he signalled the end of the meeting with a raised hand and said ‘It was very interesting to meet you. It’s good to talk to someone with something to say. Too many of the people round here are idiots. Idiots and fools. You cannot talk to any of them…’ And then he was gone and I was left standing alone.

Morris finds the Professor has dropped his tiepin. Given the excuse to visit him, he sets out after dinner – and this is when he hears a woman screaming in the Professor’s house…

I’ll keep the suspense and won’t tell you any more of substance. You’ll have worked out for yourself already that the Professor is mad, and it goes without saying that Morris will feel compelled to rescue the screaming woman, and the chase will be on – will he fall in love too? …

Morris wasn’t looking for adventure, but when it found him, he rather relished it. If you swap mad professors for spies – you’d have a character in the mould of Buchan’s Richard Hannay (my review of The 39 Steps here), but slightly toned down. Morris’s adventure also causes him to review his relationship with his father, and his own lonely existence. His thoughts are introspective, but suited to the expanse of the landscape that Benson creates.

Isabel’s skin is a quietly affecting gothic tale, it contains all the elements you expect, but is put together in a slightly different way.  The prologue has Morris setting the scene of where he ends up before launching into the story of his adventure, beginning with the first passage quoted above.  It does take itself a tad seriously, but I rather enjoyed it. (8/10)

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Source: Publisher – thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Isabel’s Skin by Peter Benson, pub Sept 2013, Alma books paperback, 250 pages.

Still shocking after all these years …

The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks

Distractions! I had hoped to read or re-read more Banks books by now. But better late than never, I have returned to the beginning and re-read The Wasp Factory again, and updated my BanksRead page.

Published in 1984, I read it for the first time in 1985 when the paperback first came out. I read it again back then too, and I still have my original paperback.  The monochrome cover with its squared symbols and numerals, and the embossed title and author name really stood out then, and does now.

wasp factory orig papaerback

Banks has always been brilliant at beginnings,  and the first lines of his first novel are cracking.

I had been making the rounds of the Sacrifice Poles the day we heard my brother had escaped. I already knew something was going to happen; the Factory told me.

Right from the off, you know you’re in for something different with Frank, a rather feral teenager who lives on an island with his abandoned father. Frank is rather fond of catching the local wildlife, and killing it to display on his totemic poles. Animals are not the only things Frank kills though…

Two years after I killed Blyth I murdered my young brother Paul, for quite different and more fundamental reasons than I’d disposed of Blyth, and then a year after that I did for my young cousin Esmerelda, more or less on a whim. That’s my score to date. Three. I haven’t killed anybody for years, and don’t intend to ever again. It was just a stage I was going through.

For those that haven’t read this book, I’m not giving things away with the above quote. It’s part of the back cover blurb of my original copy and comes at the end of chapter two. However, by then Frank has told us quite a lot about his family history, how he became a murderer, and we know about his ‘accident’. His certified brother Eric is at large, and on his way home, which is a cause for concern for everyone except Frank, who although he loves his brother thinks he may rather cramp his style. He finds solace in a boozer in town with his only friend, Jamie, a dwarf, but I can tell you no more about the plot.

wasp factory newWhen I first read this novel, I was stunned; it made an instant fan of me.  It was so dark and twisted, yet had a strong vein of black humour running through it. Between Frank’s cruel experiments, Eric’s deranged rantings on the phone, and the father’s secretive behaviour, it’s clear that what is left of this family have real problems.

Banks’ prose still has the power to shock, even knowing what was to come.  This is definitely still not a book for the squeamish.  I could pick up on more clues in his Gothic coming of age story this time.  I also saw parallels between Frank and the horrorshow of Alex in Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange – both vicious adolescents growing up; and also with Merricat in Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle – another flawed young person who uses her own version of sacrifice poles to warn off intruders onto the family estate.

It feels as if Banks arrived on the scene as a fully fledged author with The Wasp Factory.  He’s taken it from there with each subsequent novel, always experimenting, always having a strong vision, and keeping that sense of humour underneath.  Still 10/10.

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I bought my copy decades ago. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks – Abacus paperback, 256 pages.
A Clockwork Orange (Penguin Essentials) by Anthony Burgess
We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson