I'm not sure what happened to the first half of May. Gone in a flash... I thought I'd do a 3-in-1 review today, as at the snail-like pace I'm reviewing at the moment, who knows when I'd ever write them up properly.
Andrew Taylor Waiting for the End of the World (1984)
This is the second in the William Dougal series. I had high hopes that it would reach the heights of the exquisite and excellent no. 1 (Caroline Minuscule: my review), and while I found it an enjoyable read, I thought it lacked something of the attractive amorality of its predecessor. Dougal's pursuit of "uncomplicated hedonism" is once again compromised by his Nemesis-cum-mentor Hanbury, who blackmails him into spying on an Apocalypse-survival cult-leader who wants to make inroads into the UK doomsday market. This is a simple description which in no way can do justice to Taylor's ability to make hilarious chaos from the seemingly simple - and soon Dougal finds himself in well over his head. Taylor's writing is witty and dry, and I would definitely add the next one in the series to my TBR. Note: the age of mobile phones has really destroyed forever little scenes like this one:
The telephone began to emit a continuous whine. Dougal put down the receiver. There were six people waiting outside now; the first in the queue, a Hell's Angel with I LOVE E II R tattooed on his naked chest, was kicking red paint from the kiosk with an immense jackboot. Dougal emerged and held the door open for him. The Angel unexpectedly said: 'Fanks, mate.'
Ruby Ferguson Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary (1937)
I read Ruby Ferguson's charming pony-mad 'Jill' books as a child as they were among my mother's favourite books from her childhood. This is an absolutely charming book for grown-ups or, rather, "a fairy tale for grown-ups": a Persephone, and what a gorgeous one. A group of tourists tour a rundown stately home in Scotland. Through flashbacks and memories supplied by the caretaker, Mrs Memmary, the tragic story of the last occupant of 'Keepfield' is revealed in a chronological narrative of Lady Rose's privileged but emotionally austere childhood, her schooldays, presentation to Queen Victoria, dutiful marriage, inheritance of her family's title, then a unexpected opportunity for love and happiness - and a tremendous sacrifice. Ferguson creates a magical atmosphere, but one that simultaneously presents us with the possibility that this will be the fairytale without the happy ending. I was so sad when this story was finished: not just because it was a sad tale, but also because I did not want the story to end. Highly recommended!
"Take my advice," said the Duchess, "and stop the girl from reading novels. Girls of eighteen have no business to read love scenes in print; it puts false ideas into their heads. Operas at Covent Garden are bad enough, heaven knows, with persons actually romantically embracing each other on the stage. But I hastened to impress on Rose and Hermione Southwood that it all happened hundreds of years ago, and that in any case it is extremely doubtful whether Dido and Aeneas actually existed. I myself will lock Tennyson in my bureau; and if you see Rose reading any other poetry I do implore you, Margaret, for your own sake, to substitute something wholesome. A young girl needs to read nothing but her Bible; and only carefully selected portions of that!"
Angela Carter The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman (1972)
"There was once a young man named Desiderio who set out upon a journey and very soon lost himself completely." I think this book has decided me, finally, that I don't enjoy dystopian fiction and magical realism. I do, however, really like Angela Carter's writing (with Nights at the Circus being my favourite). This one is set in a post-war world, a little Metropolis-like in places. The narrator-hero, Desiderio, must overcome the evil Doctor Hoffman, who "was waging a massive campaign against human reason itself" with mass hallucinogenic mirages to which the narrator is seemingly immune. ("The only form of transport the Minister permitted in the city was the bicycle, since it can only be ridden by that constant effort of will which precludes the imagination.")
The book explores, on one level, what it is to be a hero - "I became a hero only because I survived". The redeeming feature of this tale was, for me, Carter's beautiful writing, lush descriptions, and quite astonishingly imaginative scene-settings - it is completely possible to become word-drunk on her writing. Carter also weaves in echoes from other texts (for instance, Don Quixote and the picaresque tradition; ethnographic and travel writing; witch-trials; the Odyssey; and many more) which create a further unsettledness for the reader who may well bring a certain set of expectations along with these other texts. It is sometimes overwhelmingly postmodern. This was not an easy book, as it deliberately breaks narrative rules, occasionally baffles with theory, and was, in general, far too surreal for my enjoyment. But, to be fair, it was also a lush and gorgeous exploration of a "subtly hostile", rampantly foliaged, dystopian landscape where "everything it is possible to imagine can also exist".
And the very birds of the air seemed possessed by devils. Some grew to the size and acquired the temperament of winged jaguars. Fanged sparrows plucked out the eyes of little children. Snarling flocks of starlings swooped down upon some starving wretch picking over a mess of dreams and refuse in a gutter and tore what remained of his flesh from his bones. The pigeons lolloped from illusory pediment to window-ledge like volatile, feathered madmen, chattering vile rhymes and laughing in hoarse, throaty voices, or perched upon chimney stacks shouting quotations from Hegel. But often, in actual mid-air, the birds would forget the techniques and mechanics of the very act of flight and then they fell down, so that every morning dead birds lay in drifts on the pavements like autumn leaves or brown, wind-blown snow.
So? In sum, one absolutely loved, one reasonable sequel, and one Oh My Eyes My Eyes! Too Weird! (birds quoting Hegel is my new nightmare...).