FFB: A Far Cry from Kensington by Muriel Spark

69516I don’t know why I put this off so long: maybe it was knowing it was set in the publishing world. That sort of roman à clef doesn’t usually appeal to me much — possibly because there is nothing much that will surprise me about the publishing world anymore.

But dashing off on the train to meet the fab QoE (still need to write that up) and needing something to read, I wanted more #MurielSpark100 so I grabbed this from the shelf. An unfortunate cover: I see what they were trying to do but it doesn’t really work. So many other lovely versions like this.

But of course this is SPARK so I was riveted from the start. The opening sentence is now among my faves ever:

‘So great was the noise during the day that I used to lie awake at night listening to the silence.’

How great is that? Then she goes on to explore her late night thought process and it’s just wonderful, of course. Written as a memoir by the main character, Mrs Hawkins (surely a nod to Waugh’s Nanny Hawkins), life is a far cry from the rooming house in Kensington that she lived in during the post-war period. Everyone confides in the ‘comfortable’ woman who describes herself as ‘massive’ and ‘hefty’ until ‘I decided to be thin’ (a whole other post on Spark’s obsession about weight will have to be written by someone else). Though not old, everyone treats her as if she were.

Both the house in Kensington and the odd publishing house Hawkins works for are superbly and exquisitely unique as Spark lays them out for us. Modern publishers would have a fit: the opening is all description of people and places, yet it sparkles. Ullswater and York sound like so many real publishers, and yet completely mad, too. The dissection of class is barbed and hilarious. The back and forth in time allow us to know about York’s imprisonment even while we see how he gets away with his crimes because he’s charming and has the right accent.

So many things are going on–little dramas and tiny crimes–that it’s difficult to know what will carry on through the novel and what is merely an episode, which is how Spark surprises you all the time. But she creates one of the all time worst authors in soooo many ways: ‘At this point the man whom I came to call the pisseur de copie enters my story.’ Hector Bartlett is a terrible writer and a horrible man. She makes him absolutely unforgettable and worse than we even imagine. Anyone who has dealt with a horrible author will know him.

Like Highsmith, Spark finds a lot of life’s bizarre coincidences stand out. For Highsmith they’re the heavy hand of fate; for Spark, I rather think they are the reward of faith. Plus she’s so funny and charming between the slicing witty observations:

‘It is a good thing to go to Paris for a few days if you have had a lot of trouble, and that is my advice to everyone except Parisians.’

Go read more Spark! I have her play up next, Doctors of Philosophy.

Check out all the overlooked books at Patti’s blog.

FFB: The Comforters by Muriel Spark

518etwianjl-_sx317_bo1204203200_I have been filling in some of the holes I didn’t even know I had in my readings of Spark on her 100th birthday year. I have not been disappointed. Don’t make my mistake: read everything of hers. Compounding the audacity of The Driver’s Seat (which really every crime writer needs to read especially) I at last got around to her debut novel The Comforters and I am astonished that it is not more celebrated.

Audacious: it’s the only word for it. It seems so now, and yet it came out in 1957. Why it is not a lynch pin of modern novel studies I cannot say: I suspect that in addition to her gender there’s the Catholicism. Literary studies are much more comfortable with dour Protestants, and very suspicious of the magical side of the older faith. But Spark never shied away from engaging with as well as critiquing her adopted faith and it’s part and parcel of her outlook which has as much whimsy as scathing satire, though she’s mostly accounted for the latter.

As Ali Smith writes in the introduction (which does a great job of spelling out the accomplishments of the book), ‘By the time we reach the Typing Ghost, which declares itself to Caroline by its literal repetitions, this style is already embedded; in many ways the narrator is a joke, the narration a mocking of bad literary style–and as we know by the end of the book, it’s been the narrator all along having the joke, and not on us, but with us.’

Of course the main reason you should read it is that it is a delight with a gripping storyline (even when Spark allows us to anticipate what will happen next it’s not at all like we think it is) and enormous fun all along the way. Some fave bits:

Just then she heard the sound of a typewriter. It seemed to come through the wall on her left. It stopped, and was immediately followed by a voice remarking her own thoughts. It said: On the whole she did not thing there would be any difficulty with Helena.

“You’re mad,” said the Baron abruptly. Caroline felt relieved at these words, although, and in a way because, they confirmed her distress.

“Neurotics never go mad,’ he said.

“You do not know the madness of scholarly curiosity, Mr Webster. To be interested, and at the same time disinterested…”

‘I think she’s too ignorant to be a witch.’

Check out all the overlooked books at Patti’s blog (on hiatus) Todd’s place.

Supernatural Scotland

Charles I Angel as charm

Angel of Charles I, the last minted for circulation © Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Friday’s voyage to Edinburgh was a delight. I attended the IASH workshop ‘The Supernatural in Early Modern Scotland’ (thanks to Cailleach’s Herbarium for the alert). It was a bit tricky finding the Institute due to both construction and its rather hidden corner, but I only missed the very beginning. I thought I might feel a bit of an interloper as a medievalist in their midst as well as a stranger but I must say people went out of their way to be welcoming all day.

The event kicked off with the esteemed Julian Goodare (if you don’t know him, you might know the database he helped create) who spoke about the emotional relationships between humans and spirit guides. The history of emotions is an emerging field so it was interesting ground to tread, looking at the ways people engaged with the spirits or fairies whether it was a patron/client relation or something more close (many reportedly had romantic relationships) and looking into their backgrounds for evidences of trauma.

Liv Helene Williumsen explored the tale of the ninety-nine dancers of Moaness in Orkney. The geographical location suggested a remoteness well within sight, while the number suggested that the whole village must have been there, but the influence of ‘stark aill’ (strong beer) was blamed for whatever did happen.

Lizanne Henderson opened up the topic of supernatural animals in the period as everything from familiars to spirit guides to shapeshifted humans (is a human who’s shifted to animal shape still human or animal?). She brought up a variety of strange stories of animals and the supernatural, including the pig put on trial for murder (I had to mention to her the Colin Firth film The Advocate/Hour of the Pig which portrays that story).

After lunch coordinator Martha McGill presented a lot of material on angels in folk culture, including the angel coins pictured above and worn as protective charms. She touched on the unfortunate effects of the Protestant Reformation in destroying so much of the art history of Scotland though angels had been as plentiful as ‘brambles’ despite the kirk’s disapproval.

Michael Riordan focused on ‘The Whole Prophesie’ of Thomas Rhymer which had a variety of uses in the early Modern period and linked up everything from Jacobites to Rosicrucians and Masons. If you’re familiar with Thomas the Rhymer who met the Queen of Elfland, it’s the same one. I was most inspired because I think this will play into my Raven King paper for next month, so now I’m reading up on this.

Domhnall Uilleam Stiùbhart looked at the cultural contexts of second sight in the islands and Highlands. As in the Icelandic medieval stories, this wasn’t about seeing ghosts but seeing the fetch of a living person and knowing what would happen down the line. It was interesting to hear that novice seers would have to defer to older and more experienced practitioners, perhaps to exercise a kind of community control over the nature of the experience.

Before the roundtable discussion Hamish Mathison spoke on the nature of the supernatural in Burns’ Tam o’Shanter. He argued that Burns offers a nuanced balance of the ‘wild’ and the ‘domesticated’ in the landscape of the ruined church, a mixture of the comic and the Gothic which makes for a certain discomfort. It was a great note to end on.

If you’re wishing you could have been there, it may comfort you to know that there is a forthcoming collection of essays with a few additional folk who were not able to be there. You’ll want to pick that up.

22075803496_9bc360b47e_o
Tam o’Shanter by Thomas Landseer

Charcoal Burners, Black Sails & Magic

Uskglass Charcoal Burner

Admittedly I’ve not left the house since I got here, but don’t let my indolence fool you! I am ready to rise to the opportunity and sure enough, I will be. Thanks to Cailleach’s Herbarium mentioning it on Facebook, I got on the waitlist and now have ticket in hand to attend ‘The Supernatural in Early Modern Scotland’ this Friday. A workshop at The Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities, University of Edinburgh, it looks to be a fascinating day (see the whole list of speakers here).

So many interests colliding in useful ways! It’s great to have the feeling you’re in the right place at the right time.

And speaking of collisions: the above illustration is of course the lovely Charles Vess. It’s for the last story in Susanna Clarke’s collection The Ladies of Grace Adieu. In my usual way I had hoarded the last few stories last summer, thinking when I read them there would be no more of her writing to read as she has nothing else out at present (yes, that’s how my brain works). I didn’t know the interest I would develop in charcoal burners in the meantime! So it was the first thing I read when I got back here. A delightful tale with saints (including Brigit), Uskglass and of course the titular charcoal burner.

Total collision count: dissertation subjects, two forthcoming conference papers, and the new all-consuming medieval project, Rauf Coilyear. I’m teaching Rauf in the upper division medieval class this fall. I love it when a plan comes together.

Meanwhile I am playing dolls with Miss C and catching up on Black Sails with my sweetie. Life is good.

The Big Trek

2016-05-22 14.22.06

Back to Scotland: the big trek is even bigger this time around. Albany to Philly to Manchester then Edinburgh where I’ll catch the train to Dundee. Depending on how timing works, I will either catch up with my family at Granddad’s or back at the house. As usual, I’m still packing.  It’s been so hot here in NY that I have to remind myself it’s going to be (gloriously) cooler in Dundee. Hurrah 🙂 It’s been a taxing year. Happy to escape.

Ca’ canny an’ flee laigh

henry_meynell_rheam_-_the_sorceress_1898

Henry Meynell Rheam: The Sorceress (1898)

The Scots Language Centre posted a photo this week that gave me a new motto:

This windae is in a leebrary in Aigle (‘Edzell’) in Angus. Caw cannie an flee laich is an auld saw that micht be set in Inglis as “Go carefully and don’t take on too much.” Tak tent that the ‘apologetic apostrophe’ kythes in the spellings here. The spelling laigh shuid be soondit as ‘lay-ch’ (wi the ‘ch’ as in loch).

Photie taen bi Steve Murdoch.

The Proverbs of Scotland give a slightly different version:

Screen Shot 2017-04-07 at 11.39.09

And I was struck by a similar note in Jessica Abel’s email today (if you’re not following her posts on making a success of your creative life, you’re missing out) lamenting how easy it is to forget these resolutions:

 I keep telling you that taking on too much is a recipe for things not happening, so why do I think I’m immune? I’m coughing my lungs up; I’m clearly not immune to anything. Life has taught me this lesson over and over again. When will I learn?

I am doing better on the whole at not taking on ever-more stuff. I know that seems ironic given yesterday’s announcement, but the way I’m handling that project is the model for how to do things now: clear timelines (giving myself space to finish what I’m working on  now), careful collaboration with trusted people (knowing you can count on people is half the battle), not doing everything myself (this is opening the doors for others).

But there are always temptations: the more I delve into Medieval Scots literature and culture, the more intrigues I find, like Nicnevin and the Weird Sisters…

17799241_10155311134774309_201017830546431401_n

Coming Up: Divine Write & We The Humanities

divine-write

Beginning of the semester is always busy and this one is no exception. Things coming up where you might run into me — apart from as always the productive Write 4 a Day sessions — include the 2nd Sunday @ 2 reading in Troy, as well as two new events.

Divine Write is a new series of readings + workshops featuring local writers at the Beer Diviner Tap Room. I’m planning to hit the first one tomorrow to get a feel for things because I’ll be on stage with Jim LaBate in February. Come along, try the beer and bring your pen. Yes, books will be on offer.

I’ve also thrown my hat in the ring to be a host for @WeTheHumanities the week of February 6th. I’ll be curating the discussions that week which means throwing out topics, responding to commentary and trying to keep a world wide conversation going on between all my usual activities. Madness, I know. I got a taste of how fun/nerve-wracking it can be guesting a couple times for  @FolkloreThursday — including the day the Beeb decided to cover them, eek!

If you’re on Twitter, be sure to follow along, ask questions and get involved in the discussion. The aim of the activity is to reach beyond the communities of academics and show how the humanities enrich our lives. In a time when rhetoric, history and literature provide some of the best material for speaking truth to power, that may seem easy, but conversation only works when a variety of voices join in.

So start thinking of the topics and questions you have. Me? I’m trying to stick to staying on top of work, but then my mind wanders to things like:

buke-of-howlat

Save