In This Small Spot, Caren J. Werlinger

I read this in Truro, where we were staying above a pub. I started it in bed, and finished it in the beer garden, with the gentle sound of a little river running past, and the cathedral towering up above the trees, just the other side.

And I was thinking what a pity it is that Susan Howatch, who when she was writing wrote about unconventional clergy relationships like nobody else, never got round to the Bensons.

There are a few plausible reasons why not, of course. Firstly, I’m not sure that anybody would believe in the Bensons if they appeared in a novel. They’re really quite incredible in real life. (Edward White Benson was the first Bishop of Truro – this was why they were on my mind – and later became Archbishop of Canterbury. He proposed to his wife when she was twelve. After his death she set up home with the daughter of a different Archbishop of Canterbury. All the children were as queer as their mother, in every sense. No need to bolt invented polyamory onto the facts here. But even Susan Howatch might not have got away with the Bensons.) Secondly, she writes very heterosexual books. So she was probably never going to take on the Bensons.

Anyway, I was in the mood for something that took a queer, religious, character, that took both the queerness and the religion seriously, and was prepared to delve deep into the psyche of that character.

In This Small Spot hit that, er, spot about eighty per cent of the time.

This isn’t anything like a Howatch. It doesn’t have the snobbery, the psychics, or the daddy issues. And it isn’t so tediously straight. It does have the ‘can’t do anything, got to finish this book’ thing that Howatch manages to do over and over again; which is why I had to finish it in a pub beer garden before we could see any more of Truro. And it was almost but not quite exactly what I wanted.

“Here, the true you is most often magnified, for better or for worse.”

Abbess Theodora

In a world increasingly connected to computers and machines but disconnected to self and others, Dr. Michele Stewart finds herself drowning in a life that no longer holds meaning. Searching for a deeper connection after losing her partner, Alice, she enters a contemplative monastery, living a life dedicated to prayer, to faith in things unseen. Though most of her family and friends are convinced that she has become a nun to run away from her life, she finds herself more attuned to life than she has been in years. Stripped of the things that define most people in the outside world – career, clothing, possessions – she rediscovers a long forgotten part of herself. But sooner than she expects, the outside world intrudes, forcing her to confront doubts and demons she thought she had left behind. The ultimate test of her vocation comes from the unlikeliest source when she finds herself falling in love again. As she struggles to discern where she belongs, she discovers the terrifying truth of Abbess Theodora’s warning. For better or for worse.

I don’t think I’d argue with anything in that blurb. I bought the book on the strength of it, and I wasn’t disappointed. It wouldn’t be getting its own post if I hadn’t enjoyed it. The calm rhythm of the religious life, the complex relationships between the novices, the developing tension between Sister Michele and another nun, made for an absorbing read. It wasn’t perfect, though, and there were a couple of things that left me wanting to argue.

Firstly, the pacing was a bit off, or the plot. An overuse of ‘Later, Mickey would…’ built up a suspense that was never quite delivered on. Things developed sequentially, one event leading to another, and tending to evolve from characters’ desires and personalities. This suited the setting, but there sometimes seemed to be a reluctance to commit at key points. I said above that I was looking for something that would delve deeply into a character’s psyche. I think that often it didn’t delve deeply enough.

At one point Mickey reflects that the enclosed nature of the abbey makes trivial events take on an inflated importance. Actually, I found the opposite to be true: there would have been space to take much more time to explore the personality clashes and emerging trauma that grew from and drove events.

And then it takes an unexpected turn into melodrama.

Major spoilers follow the picture of Truro cathedral.

A pointy Victorian Gothic cathedral in grey stone, shot from below.

Mickey sustains serious injuries rescuing her love interest from a fire, a combination of events which results in both of them asking to be released from their vows. Mickey returns to medical life. Having both taken time to reflect, the two of them set up house together.

And very shortly afterwards Mickey dies.

Yeah.

In fairness, it didn’t strike me as a stereotypical ‘bury your gays’. There was too much of a sense of the bigger picture for that. The happy ending had already been earned and obtained; in fact, I’d have been perfectly contented had the book ended just a few chapters earlier. What we got, however, was an ambitious ending, and one that I don’t think the author managed to pull off. She didn’t quite earn Anselma/Lauren’s revelation that ‘The tragedy would have been never to have known her at all’. It might have worked, given some more space; as it was, it felt glib.

It was intensely readable, however, and I’ll be buying the sequel. I want to know more.

SOLD BY NOBODY: an unintentional affirmation from a tiny book

Two tiny books: The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy and Church Seasons in Verse by Christina Rossetti, with a penny for scale

In my lunch hour today I went to the British Library and looked at an exhibition of tiny books. (These are not from there; the British Library frowns on people taking photographs in their galleries of precious books. These are the tiniest books that I have in the house.)

Two of the tiny books were by the Brontë children. There was an issue of the Blackwoods Young Men’s Magazine by Charlotte and Branwell. And there was The Search After Happiness by Charlotte, with the following magnificent title page:

THE SEARCH AFTER HAPINESS

A TALE BY CHARLOTTE BRONTE

PRINTED BY HERSELF

AND SOLD BY

NOBODY

Now, that is an attitude I aspire to. Never mind fretting about taking one’s books off Amazon; this is SOLD BY NOBODY and proud of it.

Charlotte Brontë was thirteen when she wrote this. Jane Eyre was several years in the future. Even if she could have foreseen the millions of cheap paperback copies of that, I don’t think she could have dreamt that after a couple of centuries the stories of Angria and Gondal and Gaaldine would have prompted scads of scholarship, books, fanfic, and a small moral panic. And going by this, I’m not sure she’d have cared.

Thank you, tiny book, for a new perspective.

Nada (Carmen Laforet) #EU27project

Ebook reader showing the title screen of 'Nada' by Carmen Laforet, on a dusty piano lid

I’m continuing to work my way through the #EU27 project in a desultory fashion. It tends to get as far as looking at a book, wondering whether it would fit, reading the blurb, and then putting it down again. Very handily, my work book club decided to read Nada, by Carmen Laforet, which, at the time of posting, I can count for Spain.

It’s a marvellously gothic book, with mysterious relations, sinister servants, and a decaying apartment. It’s an apartment rather than a house, because this is very much urban gothic: the narrator, Andrea, has moved to Barcelona to study English. I’ve never been to Barcelona, but by the end of this I felt as if I had. There’s a very compelling sense of place: windswept squares, cramped alleys, the scent of the sea. I’d like to reread when I’m more in the mood for descriptive prose.

I found Andrea a rather frustrating, passive, character, to whom things happened, or didn’t. That felt entirely plausible, however; I remember being in my late teens and early twenties and just waiting to find out what was the next thing that was going to happen to me. Actually, it reminded me more than anything of Hilary Mantel’s An Experiment In Love (mind you, that was also a book club pick).

What I completely failed to get was how deeply the book was affected by Franco’s Spain. Part of that is an artefact of having been written and published there: apparently there was a lot of censorship going on. Actually, it felt much more recent than that. I don’t know whether that was a quality of the translation or of the original, whether the absence of contextual detail set it free from time and place, or whether I was just missing a whole lot of clues. Quite possibly it was the latter.

I’m glad I read it, anyway, and will probably read it again. Hurrah for book club. Next time they’re reading The Count of Monte Cristo. Which is fine by me, though I can’t count it towards this challenge. As to that, it’s either going to be Mrs Mohr Goes Missing (Poland), The City and the Mountains (Portugal), or Inlands (Sweden). You’ll find out here. Sooner or later.

Historical fiction, knowns and unknowns

Three herring gulls on a shingle beach

This year I’ve read more historical fiction than I thought. I’ve just looked back down my booklist and found that about 20% of 2021’s reading has been historical fiction; it’s just that there are a couple of historical fiction books that have stuck in my head for the wrong reasons and they’re crowding out the other, really well researched, well written, ones.

The third somehow manages to be both. Last night I sat up until midnight (well, 23:57 if we’re going to be pedantic, which I am) to finish The Heiress (Molly Greeley). Which, if you can get past the Britpicky Angliquibbling gripes that I’ll get to in a bit, I do recommend.

The problem with both The Quickening (Rhiannon Ward) and Turn Again To Life (A. Zukowski) was that they knew they were historical fiction. The characters didn’t live in their now; they lived in the author’s nineteen-twenties. We get lines like this:

A wonderful story, except the fairies were dressed in 1920s clothes, copied probably from a magazine.

At this point it’s 1925. Now, I might describe the dress I wore yesterday as ‘a bit eighties’ or the one I wore on Tuesday as ‘vaguely fifties’. I wouldn’t call the one I’m wearing today ‘2020s’, or even ‘twenty-tens’. I might say ‘modern’ or ‘contemporary’, or just skip straight to calling it ‘a v-necked cotton jersey dress with a flared skirt’. And the reason for this is that I am living in the twenty-twenties. For me, it’s now.

In the case of Turn Again To Life, it was a case of too much research and insufficient mixing. One kept coming up against solid lumps of history: a summary of the suffrage movement plonked into the middle of a love letter, for example. I couldn’t decide whether the book needed to be twice as long or to have half as much plot, but either way it needed a better editor. A pity, because it had a really intriguing premise.

This was not at all a problem in The Heiress. This is a riff on Pride and Prejudice in which Anne de Bourgh’s invalid state is caused by involuntary laudanum addiction: a great premise, and one which is delivered on. It’s a peculiarly immersive book, and the immersion in Anne’s surreal mental landscape is a neat escape from having either to pastiche Austen or explain one’s more departure from her voice. Anne felt at once very human and very much of her time.

However, I got thrown out quite violently when she mentioned having read the Book of Common Prayer through several times and finding it ‘dull’. There are two problems with that. Firstly, I have never known anyone read the BCP cover to cover: that’s not what it’s for. The only scenario I can think of is someone who has nothing else to read: in which case it surely shouldn’t be as dull as not reading it.

The second is this: it isn’t dull. Parts of it are, yes, and if you’re reading the Calendar and the General Rubricks straight through then you deserve everything you get. But there’s an awful lot more in there, and the author just didn’t seem to know about it. One wouldn’t even need to have an unequivocally positive view of it. One could be horrified by the Commination or perplexed by the Athanasian Creed just as well as charmed by Psalm 19. Anne’s aunt dies giving birth, and yet the pain and peril of child-birth doesn’t come to mind. The Book of Common Prayer (she always calls it that, not the Prayer Book) just doesn’t live in Anne’s head the way you’d expect it to if she’d read it several times. And yet she reads The Seasons and suddenly discovers the joy of words.

It was at this point I nearly DNFed. It felt very much as if it was heading straight for Not Like Other Girls Anachronistic Atheist Feminist territory. (It didn’t get there.)

And all that made me a lot less inclined to give it the benefit of the doubt when Brighton beach was sandy and when they came back from Brighton it was snowing. The snow is just about possible. The sand… well, see the picture at the top. That was Brighton in June 2016. There will have been some geological upheaval, but still…

The problem here is not so much the historical research as the geographical research. And that’s social geography, religious geography, as well as physical geography. I know the landscape that Greeley is trying to write in, and every mistake jars. Not, admittedly, as much as that Alyssa Cole book where the hero turns out to be the Duke of Edinburgh (now that’s something you really should look up before you start writing), but it jars.

Fortunately, things got a lot better after that, and I got to the end with only a couple of hiccups: wondering when the word ‘orange’ was used to describe the colour (the 16th century apparently, so that’s a pass) and thinking that it’s slightly odd to talk about Kent being ‘only forty miles away from London’. I probably wouldn’t have batted an eyelid at those if I hadn’t been so annoyed about the BCP thing. And everything else about it really was very good. The depiction of addiction and coercion, the challenges of entering society a decade late and massively underprepared, the convincing depiction of a same-sex relationship in that particular context, the physicality… I do recommend it. But.

All this gives me much to think about as I embark on long-form historical fiction for the first time. Can my Yorkshire Quaker shop steward call his much younger boss ‘thou’ in 1919? (Actually, he probably would, and get away with it, but I can’t have him doing it, because it will throw the reader out for as long as it takes them to wonder the same thing – which might be all the rest of the book.) I was going to send my main characters to Hastings on honeymoon, but it turns out there was a blooming great U-boat cluttering up the beach all that summer. Which I think might be a bit too, er, metaphorical. I think I’ll send them a mile or so down the coast to repent at St Leonards instead.

Briarley (Aster Glenn Gray)

Paperback copy of 'Briarley' by Aster Glenn Gray, in a rosebush.

The books that I add to my LGBTQ Christian fiction recommendations don’t usually get their own posts, but this one felt almost as if it was written especially for me. Which is not something that I thought I’d ever say about a Beauty and the Beast retelling, but here we are. (Nothing against fairy tale retellings; it’s just that I haven’t happened to read one since rereading Adèle Géras’ Egerton Hall series, over a decade ago now. I shouldn’t have got rid of my copy. Actually, it occurs to me now that The Tower Room is what introduced me to St John of the Cross, so perhaps there’s a connection after all.)

Anyway, it’s 1940, the father is a country parson and Great War veteran, the daughter is a nurse, and the beast is a dragon. The parson (his name is Edward Harper, but the narrative mostly calls him ‘the parson’) does the rose-stealing thing, but refuses to let the dragon abduct his daughter, on the grounds that a) she has her war work to be doing; b) it’s wrong to punish the daughter for the father’s misdeeds; c) if the dragon needs to be freed from his enchantment by the power of love then it’s the parson’s Christian duty; d) 1 Corinthians 13.

That’s not how you learn to love, not at all. Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it does not kidnap –

One thing that I’d forgotten in all my years of not really reading retellings was that what’s interesting is not what the story does, it’s how it does it. It’s the setting; it’s the twists; it’s the characterisation. We all know where we’re going, but the journey might be surprising. In this case it was a very good surprise.

The portrayal of wartime rural England wasn’t bad at all; the enchanted house stuff was all in line with the fairy tale. More to the point, from my point of view, was that there was a real sense of theological literacy, and that was refreshing. I only put books on my recs post if they get to a point where they acknowledge the possible coexistence of Christianity and queerness within one individual, but several of them never get much beyond a superficial (and often borderline antisemitic) rebuttal of Leviticus 18 (“but prawns!!!”). This one felt much more comfortable in its arguments. It helped that one of the main characters had already done the thinking, yes, but it went beyond that. I very much got the sense of faith and/or religion as something in which these characters lived and thought. There’s a throwaway reference to David and Jonathan and a long-running, sophisticated riff on hospitality and the sin of Sodom. (Had OT scholarship got that far by 1940? I’m not sure, but it works in the book, which tends to rely on experience rather than scholarship.) There’s a committed, personal, engaged wrestling with 1 Corinthians 6. And this was true for the minor characters, too: I particularly liked the moment when one of the servants (invisible, not transfigured into household objects, in this version) responds to a “doubting Thomas” reference with, “Ma’am, I haven’t spear wounds you can probe.” Ownership of scripture isn’t restricted to the clergy here. This inhabiting of a common religious inheritance never felt heavy-handed or out of character, but it was always taken seriously.

One thing that was missing was the immersion in the Prayer Book and the Authorized Version, such as you’d find in Streatfeild or Sayers or other mid twentieth century British authors writing about this sort of milieu. This didn’t bother me on the first read (straight through, last night) but struck me when I was thinking about it this morning. The 1 Corinthians 13 bit, for example: really it should have been ‘Charity kidnappeth not.’ But that would have rather undermined the lovely quibble on the different sorts of love (of course the enchantment is picky about the sort of love required to break it) and so I’ll let it off.

Other nitpicks: there was a moment towards the end of the book that didn’t quite sit right with me, but I don’t want to spoil it so I won’t talk about it. Only one out-of-place Americanism (a “gotten”) tripped me up. There was a cricketing detail that felt slightly off, but may well have been plausible for the mid nineteenth century; I have no idea. Finally I was a bit worried about the parson’s poor neglected parishioners, but he did at least feel bad about neglecting his duty (unlike some fictional clergy we could mention), and had a reasonable excuse.

This is a short book – 165 pages in the paperback edition. I would have loved to read more of the parson’s backstory, but at the same time it felt like exactly the right length; we knew as much as we needed to. And it meant that I could finish it at a reasonable hour and might read it all over again tonight; who knows?

Anyway, if you like my stuff and you like dragons you’ll probably like this one. Very much recommended.

Briarley

Landing (Emma Donoghue) #EU27 project

Paperback copy of 'Landing' by Emma Donoghue, with a coastal scene and wooden blocks with pictures of an aeroplane, a compass rose, and a maple leaf

Four books into the #EU27 challenge, and for the first time I’ve managed to read something that was actually written in the European Union. Except, according to the cover, Emma Donoghue now lives in Canada. Oh well. She’s Irish, much of this book is set in Ireland, and people pay for things in euros. I’m going to count it. I’m also going to count it towards the Sapphic Reading Challenge, which I’ve been keeping up with but not, as yet, posting about.

Published in 2007 (the year in which I last travelled by plane, incidentally), this is a complicated romance between an Irish-Asian flight attendant and a Canadian museum archivist. And, while I’ve been doing a lot of escapist travel reading throughout the pandemic, I wouldn’t say that this was a book to induce wanderlust: it’s too clear-sighted about the trials of travel, and of being in love with someone who’s thousands of miles away. Though there’s a real affection for the real Ireland and for the fictional ‘Ireland, Ontario’ I didn’t find myself planning an expedition, the way I have with some other places.

I could add all sorts of tropey genre tags – long distance relationship, age gap romance, opposites attract – but they wouldn’t come close to conveying the depth of the novel. I would want to say that all of them add up to make for two interesting, complex characters. (And the supporting cast on both sides of the Atlantic deserves a mention, too: from the stoner ex-husband to the obnoxiously precocious god-daughter.) I wasn’t convinced that their relationship was going to last beyond the end of the book, but watching it get as far as it did was fascinating.

The Divine Comedy (Dante Alighieri, translated by Dorothy L. Sayers and Barbara Reynolds) #EU27project

The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri, translated by Dorothy L. Sayers and Barbara Reynolds, in a three volume Penguin paperback edition

I was somewhere in Purgatory when I realised that I could count The Divine Comedy towards the EU27 Project.

A tradition of mine (it’s been two years now: I can call it a tradition) is to attempt a daunting Christian book over the Easter weekend. Last year it was Julian of Norwich. Easter was a little later last year, and spring was a little earlier, and there were no services in church, and there was all the time in the world to take a folding chair out into the back garden and read. Result: I would no longer call Julian of Norwich ‘daunting’.

This year I thought I’d try Dante. I stayed on the sofa, though. I finished Paradise on Sunday morning. In the afternoon it was just about warm enough to read outside.

This is the third book I’ve read for the EU27 Project, and all of them were written outside the European Union. (The next one up breaks the pattern and actually mentions euros.) The Divine Comedy is, of course, the oldest. When Dante was writing the unification of Italy was centuries away, and the idea of a unified Europe was – well, I don’t want to say utterly foreign, because of course there was the Holy Roman Empire and the memory of the Roman Empire to work with. And he does. But he’s writing as an exile from a bitterly divided Florence.

My medieval history is extremely shaky, particularly outside England, and I had no idea who about 70% of the personages we encounter. The notes were useful here; so, too, was giving up worrying about which corrupt Pope was which and just going with it.

Dorothy L. Sayers isn’t afraid either to be a vigorous Dante apologist or to relate the people and politics of his context to her own. This helped a lot. He’s writing at the beginning of the fourteenth century, having experienced first hand the bitterness of civic feuds. She’s writing in the middle of the twentieth century, in a world that has just been brought face to face with the fact of how utterly depraved humanity can be.

And this was something that I, reading in the early twenty-first century, found very comforting. We do, in fact, live in precedented times. The world has been a mess since we left Eden; it’s a mess in a different way this time round, and I don’t always agree with either Dante or Sayers about the appropriate response to that – but it resonates. The anger resonates, the despair resonates, the hope resonates. And then that leap into a bigger picture which none of us is actually qualified to see, whose portrayal is wonderful in its own inadequacy… I loved it. Dante’s worldview is very different from my own, but that really didn’t seem to matter.

Reading The Divine Comedy over the Easter weekend allowed me to follow it in real time, sort of. I didn’t start until the morning of Good Friday (Dante gets lost in the wood on Maundy Thursday), managed to keep up through Hell, and then had to sprint a bit in various parts of Purgatory owing to the demands of Easter socialising and the fact that I had work to do on Tuesday and Wednesday. Once he gets into Paradise we lose the time markers, and so I slowed right down again until Sunday morning, when I finished it all off at once. The momentum helps. The notes are intimidating, particularly in the thickness they add to the books, but helpful. I might read up on some medieval popes and Holy Roman Emperors and go back to it in a bit. As for next Easter, I’m thinking of St Augustine.

Hyperlocal travel writing: the sofa

I have been in Verona.

Not literally.

Well, technically, yes, I’ve stood in a very long queue for the ladies’ at the railway station between getting off a train from Venice and getting on one to Brenner(o). Technically, I have been in Verona. But that wasn’t my point.

Figuratively, I have been in Verona.

Dark screen showing DVD covers for three different versions of Romeo and Juliet, plus other Shakespeare plays

I started off in January in kitschy, fictional, Verona Beach, because I needed to remind myself of Romeo and Juliet in a hurry, and the version that was at that moment the most accessible was the Baz Luhrmann one.

Now, I am just the age to have hit compulsory school Shakespeare when Romeo+Juliet had been out long enough to become the version that English teachers turned to (and Titanic was just out, and Leonardo DiCaprio was a very big thing indeed). My teens are a bit of blur at this point (not for any sex/drugs/rock’n’roll reasons; it’s just that we spent an entire year moving house) but I’m reasonably sure that I studied Romeo and Juliet three times running at three different schools. I only really remember one of those with any clarity (it was, interestingly enough, the school I struggled with the most, but I did enjoy English): we watched the Luhrmann version; we watched the Zeffirelli version, too, but it was the tat-tastic, somewhere-on-the-American-West-Coast, Verona Beach that’s stuck in my memory.

Anyway, that was January. I finished off the thing I’d watched it for in the first place, and I thought no more about it. Then I fell down the rabbit hole. It was the discovery that Alan Rickman had played Tybalt (BBC, 1978) that had me leaving scorched rubber in the search bar and resulted in the delivery of a parcel of DVDs (it comes in a set with the major tragedies, and I thought I might as well add in the Zeffirelli version, not to mention the Branagh Much Ado About Nothing, and make the most of the postage charge).

BBC Verona is much like other BBC sets of the seventies: very much a stage set, earnestly reproducing balconies and battlements in painted plywood. Alan Rickman as Tybalt is pretty much exactly how you’d expect Alan Rickman to be as Tybalt. Perfect casting, to my mind.

Reminding myself of Zeffirelli’s Verona, I suddenly saw what the BBC had been going for, how much it owed to the earlier production. It wasn’t filmed in the real Verona but I had to look it up to check. (It’s not like I would know from the railway station lavatories, after all.) This Verona is made of stone: it’s all walls and pavements and battlements, and feels at once very authentic and very claustrophobic.

Then I remembered the existence of the musical. Musicals, plural, if you count West Side Story, which to my mind is one of the best musicals in existence, but is very much not set in any sort of Verona. The Presgurvic musical, though, very much is. Welcome to Verona, my beautiful Verona, the city where the families make the law, the city where everyone hates everyone else. (Translation mine, from the earworm: the original actually rhymes and scans and is probably in a different order.)

I’d watched the Hungarian version years ago and had vague memories of a grungy, punky set and a heart-breakingly optimistic Romeo. It’s still up on Youtube, so I watched it again. My memories were correct; also, there’s a lot of fire. There’s also a real sense of a city that runs on hatred. This isn’t the Sharks and the Jets floating on top of a city that doesn’t know much about them and doesn’t care at all; this is somewhere that wouldn’t even know what it was if it didn’t have the feud. I found the Italian version, too. That’s less fiery, more gothic. This Verona is somewhere between the Middle Ages and the apocalypse.

One cannot watch videos all the time, but one of the great things about working from home is that one can have whatever music one likes in the background (and so can one’s partner, at the other end of the landing). So I’ve been listening to the French version a lot. I have yet to fork out for Spotify Premium, so I get the government popping up and telling me what to do if I’m an EU citizen (alas!) in between Mercutio yelling ‘Je maudit vos familles! Je maudit vos maisons!’ and Romeo losing it. But then I also get people popping up to ask me to sort out their login problems, so somebody’s death scene is always going to get interrupted sooner or later.

Then I found my CD of the Bellini opera. Actually, I found the libretto booklet, which had somehow got separated from the CDs. Flicking through it, I discovered something that made me go, ‘Ohhhhhhhhh!’

… A grave reason spurs Capulet to this urgency. Maybe a sudden storm hangs over the heads of the Guelphs: maybe the Montagues are rising again in enmity! May they perish, ah! perish, those savage, insolent Ghibellines!

Now, all I know about the Guelphs and the Ghibellines comes from reading Dorothy L. Sayers’ introduction to her translation of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy several years ago, and about all I had remembered was that they were opposing parties. It hadn’t occurred to me that the feud in Shakespeare might have had anything to do with real world partisanship, but it seemed really insultingly obvious now. I looked it up on Wikipedia, and there it was staring me in the face: Ghibelline swallow-tailed merlons on the ‘Casa di Romeo’, of the Montecchi family of Verona.

Small collection of clutter including a battered paperback copy of 'The Divine Comedy: Hell' by Dante, translated by Dorothy L. Sayers, and the insert from a CD of I Capuleti e i Montecchi by Vincenzo Bellini.

I picked up Dante again – I’d been thinking of reading it over Easter anyway – and reread the introduction. I hadn’t remembered entirely accurately: there were plenty of family feuds going on alongside the Guelph-Ghibelline stuff:

… the Italian nobility was violently divided by internecine clan feuds like those of the Campbells and MacGregors, so that each great family was a law unto itself and its followers, overriding the native constitution, bearing rule according to its own tribal custom, and indulging in perpetual raids and vendettas against its rivals…

After setting out the broader political context, Sayers focuses on Dante’s life, following him from Florence into exile in (wouldn’t you know) Verona and, ultimately, Ravenna. Then I spent three quarters of an hour listening to Dr Eleanor Janega tell me about Boccaccio’s Florence, and now I’m trying to remember why it is that Ravenna’s stuck in my memory. Maybe the Diarmaid McCullough History of Christianity…?

Meanwhile, cycling season has been getting underway. I like watching the cycling: often it’s two hours of scenery followed by ten minutes of excitement, but the scenery’s worth it. Strade Bianche: the white roads around Siena. Tirreno-Adriatico: west to east, sea to sea, cypress trees and red roofs, hilltop villages, Roman ruins… This weekend, it’s Milan-Sanremo. Par for the course for a spring in which I’ve been seeing a rather lot of Italy, not to mention a whole lot of Veronas, from my sofa.

Map showing main rail lines in northern Italy

But why don’t they just TALK to each other?

Yes, why didn’t they just TALK to each other about the ham before this?

I haven’t yet got my act together to buy, let alone read, Winter’s Orbit by Everina Maxwell. I did, however, read it in its previous incarnation as an original work on Archive Of Our Own, so have been following other people’s reviews with interest. Some of them have been ‘loved it when it was The Course of Honour, love it now.’ Some have been: ‘argh! Miscommunication plot! Why don’t they just TALK to each other?’

Myself, I don’t mind a miscommunication plot. Some of them, of course, are just implausible: the classic example is ‘I saw my young lady embracing another man and I am not going to bother wondering whether it might have been her brother, let alone asking her.’ Sometimes it hits my embarrassment squick and I have to give up, but if I can grit my teeth and get through that, and the miscommunication is because of something that actually makes sense, I have no problem with it.

After all, humans are not all that good at communication. We get stuck in our own assumptions. Last year, for example, I discovered that my husband and I had fundamentally different ideas about the ownership of food in the fridge. And we’ve been together since 2005, and living in the same house as each other since 2004. (That was where the problem arose: I was still operating under university housemate rules, in which you don’t eat it if you didn’t buy it; he’d moved on to couple rules, where if it’s in the fridge it’s there for the eating.)

We’d never talked about it, because why would we? We’d never talked about it, because it had never been a problem until we both started eating lunch at home every day of the week. Once we did talk about it – beginning with a hurt ‘YOU ATE MY HAM!’ – we sorted it out fast.

And OK, maybe in some books the miscommunication plot would be more like fifteen years of inadvertent ham theft on one side and martyred ham-buying and deep sighs on the other. (Though even that might make a running gag in a sitcom.) But more often it’s something that nobody involved has ever thought to question, because why would they, until bam! there it is.

Ham is something that you can JUST talk about. But it might be that the issue is too fraught, too painful, for you to even know where to start talking about it. Some people really didn’t like the Doctor Who episode where we discovered that Amy and Rory had broken up because she couldn’t have children because of ‘what they did to me at Demon’s Run’. It was never made clear whether the whole doppelganger memory bending assassin pregnancy business had left her physically infertile, or had just (‘just’) been so traumatic that she had never been able to face the idea of childbirth again. ‘Why didn’t they just TALK about it?’, people demanded. For me, the fact that they never had was one of the most convincing aspects of the whole series.

Writing the sort of books that I write, I’m always a bit worried about someone coming back with a ‘But why don’t they just TALK to each other?’ I ended up hanging a lampshade on it in the last book:

Why didn’t you tell me you were feeling like this? No, sorry, that’s a stupid question, you’ve only just worked it out. Why did you think you weren’t allowed to feel like this?

I’m not going to tell you what ‘it’ is, because it’s not really good practice to spoil one’s own books, but I can assure you that I put the work in to get us all there. This conversation comes on page 292. And it’s not as if nobody’s been talking up until that point, either.

The Course of Honour worked for me. The assumptions that underpinned the miscommunication were plausible, stemming from one protagonist’s history and the other’s genuine attempt to respect that. Sometimes it was painful, often it was frustrating, but it worked. I expect Winter’s Orbit will work for me too, assuming Maxwell hasn’t changed that element significantly.

So for me, no, they don’t have to talk to each other. Not straight away. In fact, a book about a relationship where every problem was immediately sorted by talking to each other would be boring as well as implausible. Because it’s never JUST talking.

But WHY don’t they just talk to each other? Ah, that’s the interesting question. Answer that question to my satisfaction, and I’m happy to spend 320 pages finding out.

The Reader’s Gazetteer Special: Inventing Ruritania (Vesna Goldsworthy)

A paperback copy of 'Inventing Ruritania: the imperialism of the imagination' lies on a map of Europe

Something of a departure from the main scope of this series, Inventing Ruritania is, despite the title, about real places. And it’s non-fiction. However, it’s very relevant to the theme. I was very pleased to receive a copy of this for Christmas, and ambled through it a chapter at a time.

I don’t read much academic writing these days, but found this perfectly easy to follow. The main thrust of Vesna Goldsworthy’s argument is that the global understanding of the Balkans has been shaped by Anglophone, primarily British, literature about the region, arguably to the detriment of its standing. The subtitle tells the story: the imperialism of the imagination. Because our primary interaction with the Balkans is in fiction in which the public-school-educated British traveller sorts the country out – or finds the task impossible – we assume that the real thing needs sorting out by us, too. Something that of course rings particularly hollow at the moment, when the public-school-educated British men appear incapable of running their own country.

(I’m paraphrasing severely here. But this is something that I’ve been thinking about a lot as I work – or don’t – on my own Ruritanian effort.)

Goldsworthy’s examples are wide-ranging; she begins with Byron’s account of Greece and progresses through nineteenth century British political interest in Bulgaria before getting to the popular fiction from which she gets her title. The Prisoner of Zenda and Dracula are joined by a whole library’s worth of books that didn’t make it to Penguin Classics. Moving into the twentieth century, we get Buchan and Christie, the ‘comic’ literature of Durrell and Waugh, and the non-fiction of Rebecca West and Patrick Leigh Fermor.

Some of these books set their action in a fictional country that is explicitly located in the Balkans. Some are set in real-life Balkan countries.

While writers all over the world are prone to appropriating other people’s cultures to make an exotic backdrop (nothing that I have heard about Red, White and Royal Blue, for example, persuades me that I would be able to read it without throwing the book at the wall), it’s true that the dominance of the English language puts what one might now call ‘own voices’ Balkan literature at a disadvantage. It’s true, too, that I know embarrassingly little about the region, and much of what I do know comes from English literature. (For years, all I knew of Romania was from Song For A Tattered Flag.) I’ve learned rather more just from reading this book.

‘Ruritania’ is perhaps a bit of a misnomer: as we established a few posts ago, and as Goldsworthy points out herself, going on the evidence that Anthony Hope gives us, the place can’t be any further south than real-life Bohemia. Still, it can’t be denied that when most people say ‘Ruritania’ they mean ‘somewhere in the Balkans’. My own feeling is that many authors, particularly contemporary ones, who use Ruritanian settings, do so to avoid appropriating real-life cultures while still having a government and maybe a monarchy to play with: the number of fictional tiny principalities squeezed in between real-life borders, I would argue, bear me out. Many seem to be borrowing Monaco or Liechtenstein rather than anywhere further south and east. But of course Goldsworthy’s talking about books that explicitly set their action either in named Balkan countries or in countries explicitly stated to be in the Balkan region: in this, the book doesn’t fit quite so well into this blog series after all.

More seriously, I do not have the author’s confidence that ‘the sort of generalised, open condescension [applied to Albanians, Croats, Serbs, Bulgarians and Romanians] would appal [the authors] if applied to Somalis or the peoples of Zaire’. In my experience, white people who are racist about other white people are perfectly capable about being racist about black people too.

However, I can’t truthfully say that either of these nitpicks undermine Goldsworthy’s point to any significant extent, and it’s left me with plenty to think about. And a few more books to add to my reading list.