Saturday, March 04, 2023

'Of the Devil's party without knowing it'

Andrew Wall, dir. & writ.: The Fantasy Makers (2018)

The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when he wrote of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil's party without knowing it.
- William Blake: The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790)

Recently Bronwyn and I watched the documentary "The Fantasy Makers", hoping for some insights into the work of George MacDonald and his successors J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis. I have to say that it was a somewhat disappointing experience. A succession of non-entities - obscure Academics and writers, none of whom I'd ever heard of - came on screen to proclaim the vital significance of the Christian faith to the works of these three authors, and the various ways in which that old-time religion had jump-started their imaginations.

Don't get me wrong. This is certainly a defensible proposition: indeed a pretty obvious one, given the tendency of MacDonald and Lewis in particular to incorporate a good deal of Christian allegory and even straightout preaching in their respective fantasy worlds. There's no doubt, either, about the significance of his Catholic faith to J. R. R. Tolkien.

Where I part company with this documentary is in its selective - and thus quite misleading - account of the growth of the modern Fantasy genre. It's strongly implied in context that reading MacDonald had a decisive effect on Tolkien - whereas it's really Lewis who was more influenced by him. It's true that The Hobbit is deeply indebted to MacDonald's The Princess and the Goblin, but William Morris's series of heroic romances were the real catalyst for Tolkien's own peculiar fusion of mythology and folktale.

William Morris: The House of the Wolfings (1889)

So why leave out Morris? There were, of course - there always are - limitations of space. You can't put in everyone. In this case, though, there was a simpler reason: he wasn't a Christian. He was, admittedly, brought up as one, but in later life he espoused atheism, along with a very militant form of Communism. He was as independent a thinker as he was a writer and artist.

William Morris: William Morris (1834-1896)

It puts me in mind of an account I once heard of a Children's TV programme which one of my school friends inadvertently found himself watching one idle afternoon. The kids were all sitting around in a circle while the house band, called (I think) the Certain Sounds, performed various uplifting numbers.

This led to a "discussion" (i.e. harangue) where the hosts of the show denounced the excesses of contemporary Rock music - this was, admittedly, the era of Ozzy Osbourne and Black Sabbath - and stressed how wholesome, by contrast, were the songs they'd just been listening to. Those confirmed degenerates the Rolling Stones came in for a bit of a tongue-lashing, too.

All of a sudden a youth leapt up from the floor and shouted "The Rolling Stones are great - and the Certain Sounds are sh ..." They cut to commercial before he could finish what he was saying - but I think the audience got the message. Ah me, the perils of live TV!

When the programme resumed the lone rebel had, of course, been removed - and no doubt taken backstage for indoctrination. But, as the poet Horace once observed: "you can drive out nature with a pitchfork, but still she'll come back" [naturam expelles furca, tamen usque recurret]. His work there was done.

The more the speakers in The Fantasy Makers stressed how hip-hop-happening the Bible was, and how deeply it had influenced the whole course of storytelling through the ages, the more I could hear the voice of my sister-in-law trying to persuade the rest of us at one extended-family gathering that Christian Rock was cool, and it was we who were the fuddy-duddies in sticking to more conventional forms of Rock 'n' Roll.

The Bible is undoubtedly a great source of stories, and Tolkien and his friends were very religious, but the intense vehemence with which the assorted talking heads in the documentary asserted these simple truths was in itself enough to make one feel suspicious.

J. R. R. Tolkien: On Fairy-stories (2008)

It was, after all, Tolkien himself who stressed the vital need to make a distinction between the realm of Faerie and its two nearest neighbours, Heaven and Hell. In his classic 1939 essay "On Fairy-Stories", he quotes from the old Border Ballad of Thomas the Rhymer:
O see ye not yon narrow road
So thick beset wi' thorns and briers?
That is the path of Righteousness,
Though after it but few inquires.

And see ye not yon braid, braid road
That lies across the lily leven?
That is the path of Wickedness,
Though some call it the Road to Heaven.

And see ye not yon bonny road
That winds about yon fernie brae?
That is the road to fair Elfland,
Where thou and I this night maun gae.
Having first mistaken her for Mary Mother of God, Thomas is inveigled into accompanying the Fairy Queen down the third of these paths, and so:
Till seven long years were gone and done
True Thomas on earth was never seen.
He brings nothing back with him from this mysterious realm except the ability to make rhymes and music.

Mind you, it isn't all good - and there's certainly nothing safe about it. Thomas was lucky to get back home at all: centuries can easily go by in the blink of an eye for those who've been taken away to Faerie. And there is, of course, the little matter of the Devil's teind (or tithe) - a tax of souls enforced by Hell in exchange for allowing this realm to exist independently.

Henry Fuseli: The Faerie Queene (1788)

'Of the Devil's party without knowing it' - well, no, not quite. Tolkien, Lewis, and MacDonald were quite clear in their opposition to that gentleman, witness their respective portraits of him as Morgoth in the Silmarillion (along with his chief lieutenant Sauron in The Lord of the Rings); the Infernal Minister served by civil servant Screwtape in The Screwtape Letters; not to mention the gloomy landlord depicted in MacDonald's introduction to Valdemar Adolph Thisted's Letters from Hell.

It is undeniable, though, that - as a reader - you feel a certain sense of excitement in Tolkien whenever he allows himself to revel in the imagery and atmosphere of the pre-Christian Teutonic heroic age. The story comes to life. In Lewis, too, when he allows his English children entry to a country where fauns and centaurs and the other nature spirits of Classical Paganism are permitted to roam freely.

Milton, according to Blake, "wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when he wrote of Devils & Hell" - Tolkien, too, could write freely enough of both Middle-earth and Mordor, but when it comes to Valinor and the Blessed Realms, it all just fades off into sunlight and singing.

Pauline Baynes: Father Christmas (1950)

Think, too, of how embarrassing is the sudden appearance of Father Christmas in Lewis's first Narnia book The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. It just seems so jarringly wrong to drag St. Nick into the midst of all these talking animals and powerful magicians. Not even the superbly imaginative Pauline Baynes can do much with this intrusion. But Lewis must have learned from the experience, because he never did anything quite so crass again.

Tolkien detested Lewis's Narnia books precisely because of their imbalance of tone and seriousness. Nymphs and Their Ways: The Love Life of a Faun, the title of one of the raunchier books on Mr. Tumnus's bookshelf, exemplified for Tolkien everything that was wrong about this mish-mash of pagan and contemporary themes.

Ludovico Ariosto: Orlando Furioso (1516-32)

If Ariosto rivalled it in invention (in fact he does not) he would still lack its heroic seriousness. No imaginary world has been projected which is at once so multifarious and so true to its own inner laws; none so seemingly objective, so disinfected from the taint of an author’s merely individual psychology; none so relevant to the actual human situation yet so free from allegory. And what fine shading there is in the variations of style to meet the almost endless diversity of scenes and characters – comic, homely, epic, monstrous, or diabolic!
- C. S. Lewis, Blurb for The Lord of the Rings (1954)
Lewis, by contrast, was careful to praise Tolkien's "heroic seriousness", but suggested that his inventiveness might find a parallel (if not a rival) in Ariosto's Orlando Furioso. Tolkien, characteristically, bristled at the comparison, but one suspects that it was not made idly.

Lewis felt, it would seem, that Tolkien was at risk of starting to believe his own ideas about 'sub-creation' - that he was, in effect, within a hair of setting himself up as the god of his own creation. And there is certainly little that's ostensibly Christian about Tolkien's world: its values seem far more firmly based on Old Norse stoicism and blind courage.

Whatever bargain these writers may have struck with their own consciences, it seems clear to me whenever I read them that both Lewis and Tolkien were more in love imaginatively with the Queen of Faerie than they could ever could be with the minutiae of their own religion. That was theology; this was fantasy.

I don't question (or doubt) the sincerity of their faith, just as I don't doubt that of Milton - or Blake, for that matter. I may not share it myself, but I did in my younger days, so have at least some understanding of the mind-set involved.

The creative instinct, however, is an unruly thing: once you start to discipline it and push it in the directions demanded by dogma, you end up with (at best) Hymns Ancient and Modern; at worst, Socialist Realism.

C. S. Lewis: The Cosmic Trilogy (1938-45)

The reason, I suspect, that none of the more distinguished commentators on Lewis, Tolkien, and their fellow Inklings - the ones you might actually have heard of - could be persuaded to appear in this rather tin-eared documentary, is that they could see at once that it was attempting to shrink them to the size of mere Christian propagandists.

And yes, on one level, that is what they were - C. S. Lewis, in particular. But you don't have to be a Christian to delight in Out of the Silent Planet or Perelandra, just as The Lord of the Rings cuts across creeds and cultures to engage with real human truths.

Both of them took the road to fair Elf-land, and both paid a certain price for doing so. George MacDonald is a more complex case - his guilt over such lapses from the party-line threatens time and again to overturn his fantasies in mid-course. But the greatness of his narrative gift keeps us reading At the Back of the North Wind and the 'Curdie' books despite any failures of taste or consistency within them.

The Marion E. Wade Center Museum (Wheaton College, Illinois)

There's a reason why this particular set of seven British authors have been granted their own research centre at a major American university, and it's not because of the orthodoxy of their belief systems:
  1. George MacDonald (1824-1905)
  2. G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936)
  3. Charles Williams (1886-1945)
  4. J. R. R. Tolkien (1892-1973)
  5. Dorothy L. Sayers (1893-1957)
  6. Owen Barfield (1898-1997)
  7. C. S. Lewis (1898-1963)
Barfield was an Anthroposophist, Chesterton and Tolkien were Catholics, Lewis and Sayers were Anglicans, MacDonald was probably more of a Unitarian than anything else, and it's very hard to say just what precisely Charles Williams was: he certainly dabbled in magic and occultism more than any of the others.

Where they stand together is in the superreal vividness of their imaginations. Their respective versions of Christian faith may well have been a help in this, but all seven of them had to cast their nets wider than that to write anything worth reading. The details of their individual bargains with Faerie remain sealed up with their bones.

George MacDonald: Phantastes: A Faerie Romance (1858)

George MacDonald (1860)

George MacDonald


  1. Phantastes & Lilith. 1858 & 1895. Introduction by C. S. Lewis. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1964.
  2. At the Back of the North Wind / The Princess and the Goblin / The Princess and Curdie. 1870, 1871, 1882. London : Octopus Books, 1979.
  3. The Princess and the Goblin. 1871. Illustrated by Arthur Hughes. A Puffin Book. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973.
  4. The Princess and Curdie. 1882. Illustrated by Helen Stratton. A Puffin Book. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1980.
  5. The Gifts of the Child Christ: Fairy Tales and Stories for the Childlike. 1882. Ed. Glenn Edward Sadler. 2 vols. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1973.
  6. The Light Princess and Other Tales: Being the Complete Fairy Tales. Illustrated by Arthur Hughes. Introduction by Roger Lancelyn Green. 1961. Kelpies. Edinburgh: Canongate, 1987.
  7. The Complete Fairy Tales. Ed. U. C. Knoepflmacher. Penguin Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1999.

  8. Novels:

  9. The Marquis of Lossie. 1877. London: Cassell & Co., 1927.

  10. Non-fiction:

  11. 'Preface' to Valdemar Adolph Thisted. Letters from Hell. 1866. Trans. Julie Sutter. 1884. London: Macmillan & Co., Ltd., 1911.
  12. George MacDonald: An Anthology. Ed. C. S. Lewis. 1946. London: Geoffrey Bles: The Centenary Press, 1947.

  13. Poetry:

  14. MacDonald, George. The Poetical Works. 2 vols. London: Chatto & Windus, 1911.

  15. Secondary:

  16. Raeper, William. George MacDonald. 1987. Herts, England: A Lion Book, 1988.

George MacDonald: The Gifts of the Child Christ (1882)

Saturday, February 18, 2023

The Great Storm

As we start to settle into - hopefully - the cleanup and recovery from the floods and other ravages of Cyclone Gabrielle here in the North Island, it got me to thinking about some of the great storms of literature.

Flooding in Mairangi Bay
[photography: Bronwyn Lloyd (27/1/2023)]

Joseph Conrad's Typhoon, yes, most people have heard of that, but there are some other equally impressive ones which may be less familiar.

There's Daniel Defoe's pioneering piece of journalism recording the progress of the great storm of 1703, for instance - or the shipwreck at Yarmouth in Charles Dickens's David Copperfield. John Masefield and Richard Hughes are two seafaring authors who appear to have set out deliberately to challenge Conrad at his own game.

And then, to mention a couple of more recent examples, there's British Sci-fi writer John Christopher's The Long Voyage, an intense and poetic narrative of a ship lost at sea; not to mention (to bring things full circle) the evocation of the UK's great storm of 1987 - which I remember well - at the end of A. S. Byatt's Possession: A Romance.

Wolfgang Petersen, dir. The Perfect Storm (2000)
Sebastian Junger. The Perfect Storm: A True Story of Men Against the Sea. 1997. London: Fourth Estate, 1998.

Daniel Defoe: The Storm (1704)

Daniel Defoe:
The Storm

Daniel Defoe. The Storm. 1704. Ed. Richard Hamblyn. London: Allen Lane, 2003.

Daniel Defoe was certainly a man for firsts: the first major English novel, Robinson Crusoe (1719); the first substantive non-fiction novel, or 'faction': Memoirs of a Cavalier (1720); and the first 'substantial piece of modern journalism', The Storm, his blow-by-blow account of the great storm of 1703, compiled from numerous eye-witness accounts.

It was, as he described it, "The Greatest, the Longest in Duration, the widest in Extent, of all the Tempests and Storms that History gives any Account of since the Beginning of Time. ... No pen could describe it, nor tongue express it, nor thought conceive it unless by one in the extremity of it."
Most People expected the Fall of their Houses. ... Whatever the Danger was within doors, 'twas worse without; the Bricks, Tiles, and Stones, from the Tops of the Houses, flew with such force, and so thick in the Streets, that no one thought fit to venture out, tho' their Houses were near demolish'd within.
- Daniel Defoe, The Storm. 1704. The Novels and miscellaneous works of Daniel Defoe. 6 vols. London: Henry G. Bohn, 1855. vol. 5: 260-421.
Defoe's book may, unfortunately, have been a bit ahead of its time, given its poor sales, but it remains a lively read, and certainly anticipates the skill with which he would blend factual details with fiction in later works such as the classic Journal of the Plague Year (1722).

Daniel Defoe: The Storm: An Essay (2005)

Phiz: Frontispiece to David Copperfield (scanned by Philip V. Allingham)

Charles Dickens:
David Copperfield

Charles Dickens. The Personal History of David Copperfield. 1850. Ed. Trevor Blount. Penguin Classics. 1966. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985.

Here are Charles Dickens's original notes for the 18th monthly part of his most personal and, indeed, largely autobiographical novel David Copperfield, serialised from May 1849 to November 1850 by his London publishers Bradbury & Evans:
Ham and Steerforth. Steerforth in a sinking ship
in a great storm off Yarmouth Roads. Ham goes
off in a life boat, - or with a rope around his waist? -
through the surf. Both Bodies washed ashore together?
a mighty wind.

- John Butt & Kathleen Tillotson, Dickens at Work. 1957. London & New York: Methuen & Co., 1982: 168.
The co-authors of Dickens at Work, the first book to give close attention to the 'notes-to-self' number plans which have survived for some (not all) of his novels, comment thus on his preparations for the portrayal of the great Yarmouth storm:
No scene in the book was given such careful presentation as the storm scene. ... The labour involved ... is conveyed in a letter to Forster of 15 September: 'I have been tremendously at work these two days', he writes; 'eight hours at a stretch yesterday, and six hours and a half today, with the Ham and Steerforth chapter, which has completely knocked me over'. Two days later he told Wills that the 'most powerful effect in all the Story is still on the Anvil'. Thus the writing of this chapter occupied at least four days. [170]

Fred Barnard: The Storm (1872)

Portraying this scene adequately seems to have been a bit too much for the matter-of-fact Phiz, his usual illustrator, so it wasn't till Fred Barnard provided some new pictures for Chapter LV, "Tempest," in the posthumous Household Edition of David Copperfield, that any real attempt was made to show Ham Peggotty preparing to swim out to the wreck in an effort to save the unfortunate souls left aboard.

It certainly seems preferable to Harry Furniss's later version, below, of the 'the last parting' between David and Steerforth - "he was lying easily with his head upon his arm": the one detail Dickens marked "To remember" in the number plan for this chapter.

Harry Furniss: The End of Steerforth (1910)

Joseph Conrad: Typhoon and Other Stories (1903)

Joseph Conrad:

Joseph Conrad. Typhoon and Other Stories. 1903. Penguin Modern Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970.

Joseph Conrad's great novel Lord Jim (1900) hinges on an emergency at sea: not a storm, but a collision between a pilgrim ship bound to Mecca and some kind of floating debris, possibly an entire submerged ship floating just below the surface of the water.

The main character Jim's failure to measure up to the disaster dictates, inexorably, the rest of the tragic action of the story.

Joseph Conrad: Lord Jim (1900)

One can't help feeling, though, that Conrad may have thought that he'd missed a trick by not including, in Lord Jim, the sheer unbridled energy of a Pacific typhoon (the same thing as a hurricane, essentially, except that different names are used for these storms in the Atlantic and the Pacific).

"Typhoon" is not exactly a light-hearted work: it portrays a state of things so far beyond the normal expectation of what might happen, even at sea, that it can literally drive people insane. Nevertheless, it's true to say that it showcases Conrad's trademark irony rather more centrally than Lord Jim.

Just as Jim's romantic illusions about life are the crucial factor that destroys him, so Captain MacWhirr's complete lack of imagination is the thing that saves him and his crew from the immeasurable devastation of the storm. MacWhirr understands objectively that his ship might sink, but he cannot really see it in his mind's eye.

It therefore never occurs to him to do anything but continue with the normal business of the voyage. And so, bizarrely, he and most of the others are saved.

Joseph Conrad: Typhoon and Other Stories (1903)

John Masefield: Victorious Troy (1935)

John Masefield:
Victorious Troy

John Masefield. Victorious Troy, or The Hurrying Angel. 1935. London: William Heinemann Ltd., 1935.

A Long time ago I wrote a Masters' thesis about the novels of English Poet Laureate John Masefield - or, rather, his early novels: he wrote 23 of them in all.

Victorious Troy is one of the later ones, and one of the few to be focussed entirely on the sea.

John Masefield: The Bird of Dawning (1933)

The first of his purely 'seafaring' novels, The Bird of Dawning:
... is the remarkable story of a crew and the principal hero, Cruiser Trewsbury, between shipwreck and triumph. When their clipper, participant of the annual tea race from China to London, sinks on its home journey, Cruiser takes command of the only boat which escapes the disaster. A gruelling journey of 700 miles across the Atlantic in an open boat awaits the small crew. The discovery, soon to be made, that they have an insufficient quantity of both water and food on board, dashes all hopes. Passing ships which fail to spot the shipwrecked and sharks greedily approaching the boat contribute to the picture of doom. By remarkable circumstances, however, they discover a ship, one of the other tea clippers, drifting on the sea with its crew gone. With the crew back in the race for the coveted price of being the first tea clipper of the season to dock in London ...
The book includes a marvellous set-piece passage describing the effects of a single great wave on a ship at sea. Perhaps it was this that persuaded Masefield to go the whole hog and devote an entire novel to the description of a great storm.

Victorious Troy, published two years later, is:
... Set during the grain race of 1922. ... The ship from which the novel gets its title is struck by a cyclone in the South Pacific and it is Dick Pomfret, the senior apprentice, who valiantly saves the vessel.
- Philip W. Errington, John Masefield: The "Great Auk" of English Literature. A Bibliography. London: The British Library / New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press, 2004: 420.
It's certainly far more detailed than "Typhoon", but lacks the latter's focus and psychological acuity. As an unabashed adventure story and rattling good yarn, though, it's well worth reading by those addicted to the likes of C. S. Forester and Patrick O'Brian.

John Masefield: Victorious Troy (1935)

Richard Hughes: In Hazard (1938)

Richard Hughes:
In Hazard

Richard Hughes. In Hazard. 1938. London: Chatto & Windus, 1948.
In 1932 the Phemius, a Holt Line steamship, was caught in a hurricane for six days. Hoping that his captain’s report could be turned into something, the chairman of the shipping line sent a copy to Masefield and then to Hughes, whose first novel, A High Wind in Jamaica, had been set at sea. In 1938 Hughes used the incident as the basis for In Hazard, his second novel.
- Richard Hughes, "Securing the Hatches". Lapham's Quarterly (1929)
Once again, this is a case of an author who'd had great success with one description of a storm or a shipwreck, deciding to extend the trope into a complete work of fiction.

Richard Hughes: A High Wind in Jamaica (1929)

The account of a hurricane at the beginning of A High Wind in Jamaica is justly famous: impossible to forget, in fact. The rest of the novel takes a completely different tack into the psychology of young children left up to their own devices - in a manner somewhat prophetic of Golding's Lord of the Flies - and is also very successful in its own way, but the novel as a whole does seem to separate into these two disparate parts.

In Hazard is not so famous. In fact, the only reason I've actually read it is because I happened to pick up a battered second-hand paperback copy when I was in my teens. It's been damned with descriptions such as "allegorical of the Second World War" or "limited in its range", but I suspect the most of these comments come from people unfamiliar with it.

It may be because I've read it so many times that I practically know it by heart, but it still seems to me a staggeringly good novel. The storm it describes is apocalyptic, seemingly incredible, and yet - based entirely on an actual event, as the quote above records.

It is by far my favourite book among the very few that Richard Hughes gave us. He, too, seems to me a severely underrated writer, who definitely deserves resurrection. There's a good biography by Richard Perceval Graves, published in 1994.

Richard Hughes: In Hazard (1998)

John Christopher: The Long Voyage (1960)

John Christopher:
The Long Voyage

John Christopher. The Long Voyage. 1960. London: Sphere Books, 1986.

Before he became the beloved author of such YA classics as the Tripod books and The Prince in Waiting trilogy, "John Christopher" (whose real name was Samuel Youd) was mainly known for a series of grim survival stories, some SF, some not, more or less in the mode of John Wyndham and the early J. G. Ballard.

John Christopher: The World in Winter (1962)

The World in Winter and The Death of Grass are probably the best known of these. Both are uncompromisingly pessimistic, and (indeed) would fit more comfortably into contemporary lists of post-apocalyptic literature than they did into the literary landscape of the 1950s and 60s.

He was by no means a one-note writer, however, and The Long Voyage (known in the US as The White Voyage) is probably my favourite among all of his books.

It depicts a long struggle for survival by a few passengers and crew left on a derelict ship in the North Sea as it drifts ever northwards towards the Arctic Circle. The Shackleton-like spirit displayed by the Captain and (to a lesser extent) by his First Mate is balanced by the careful character depiction of the less heroic others.

It's hard to describe why the result seems imbued with such precision and truth. It's one of those rare novels I always feel like rereading the moment I finish it. It has a curious depressing charm which I can only compare to Philip Larkin's equally bleak A Girl in Winter, a dark background against which the few moments of epiphany shine out with surprising depth.

John Christopher: The White Voyage (1960)

A. S. Byatt: Possession (1990)

A. S. Byatt:

A. S. Byatt. Possession: A Romance. 1990. London: Vintage, 1991.
The Great Storm of 1987 is one of the worst recorded weather events in British history, claiming 18 lives in the UK and uprooting 15 million trees. ...
During a lunchtime weather broadcast, in a moment which proved pivotal to the public's perception of the coming storm, the BBC's Michael Fish made an offhand comment which was misunderstood to mean there was no hurricane coming.
The storm then hit in the early hours before dawn with a ferocity which no one had been prepared for, ripping through the country from the west near Cornwall and advancing with every hour ...
In the late 1980s I was living in the UK, as I worked on my Doctoral thesis at the University of Edinburgh. I didn't have much access to news, as the television room in my local Halls of Residence seemed to be perpetually occupied by darts fans who resented any attempt to change the channel. But even I was aware of the great storm of 1987.

Though it mostly affected the south of England rather than Scotland, where I was based, I can still remember those images of whole forests of downed trees. For a dendrophile such as myself, the sight was particularly devastating.

Years later, when I read the sensation of the season, A. S. Byatt's Booker-Prize winning novel Possession, I was very impressed by the way in which she managed to weave the great storm into her preposterously entertaining tale of two nineteenth-century poets' hidden affair, and the nefarious attempts by various scholars to steal all the details for their own devious purposes - a dastardly scheme foiled finally by our two present-day heroes.

The novel has been described as "historiographic metafiction", and it gave rise to a whole slew of - mostly less succcessful - imitations. There was, however, a wonderful serendipity in reading it in 1990 as an obscure graduate student, like Roland Michell in the novel, and to feel the part-fictional, part-truthful events rhyming one by one with my own lofty fantasies of Academic success.

It's hard to avoid the conclusion that Byatt was influenced by David Copperfield in her decision to set the denouement of her novel during a great storm. But then, who wasn't she influenced by? Her novel may seem less unusual now, thirty years on, given it's been so often emulated, but it remains a wonderful yarn, and certainly one I would recommend to anyone who's not yet encountered it.

At all costs ignore the horribly bad movie adaptation, though.

A. S. Byatt: Possession (1990)

@MonteChristoNZ/via REUTERS: Auckland Floods (31-1-2023)

So will what we've just experienced here in New Zealand go down in history as the great storm (or storms) of 2023? It seems very probable. It's hard to avoid the thought that both the weather forecasters and the civil defence authorities were to blame in not reacting more quickly to the events of Frday 27th January, but they certainly tried to make up for the deficiency in their warnings about Cyclone Gabrielle.

No doubt there are many more lessons for the future to be learnt from all this. For the moment, though, our concentration has to be on starting to repair as much as possible of the damage that's been done. And to mourn for the dead.

Brett Phibbs: Colwill Road, Massey (5/2/2023)

Thursday, February 02, 2023

My Favourite Vintage Bookshops: Auckland CBD

Isabel Coixet, dir.: The Bookshop (2017)

Despite its stellar cast - Emily Mortimer, Bill Nighy, Patricia Clarkson - and all its undoubted felicities of setting and atmosphere, I'm not sure I'd see The Bookshop as an entirely successful movie. It's a bit too depressing, for a start.

In fact, from my own (admittedly selfish) point of view, its main virtue was awakening me to the existence of Penelope Fitzgerald's writing.

Jason Books

Jason Books
[16 O'Connell St, Auckland CBD]

So, sure enough, next time I was in town I dropped into that home-away-from-home which is Maud Cahill's Jason Books, only to discover - surprise! surprise! - a biography and a collection of letters by the author in question waiting to find me:

Hermione Lee: Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life (2013)
Hermione Lee. Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life. Chatto & Windus. London: Random House, 2013.

Reading Hermione Lee's account of her has certainly helped me to understand why Fitzgerald's work tends to fix itself in the memory, and indeed reads like a memorial for an entire era of damp, seedy, post-war British misery.

Oh dear. I'm not really selling it, am I? But then maybe that's the point. Despite that one, career-defining moment when she won the 1979 Booker Prize for her novel Offshore, Fitzgerald's life was pretty short on triumphs and long on endurance.

After a fairly glittering start at Oxford in the late 1930s, an unfortunate marriage to wartime hero and peacetime drunk Desmond Fitzgerald provided the entrée to a couple of decades of poverty in ever more squalid surroundings.

Her star-studded family, the Knoxes ("she was the daughter of Edmund Knox, editor of Punch, and ... a niece of the theologian and crime writer Ronald Knox, the cryptographer Dillwyn Knox, [and] the Bible scholar Wilfred Knox") seem scarcely to have noticed, being far too preoccupied with their own glittering careers to pay much attention to this lone female in the ranks.

Penelope Fitzgerald: The Knox Brothers (1977)
Penelope Fitzgerald. The Knox Brothers: Edmund ('Evoe') 1881-1971, Dillwyn 1883-1943, Wilfred 1886-1950, Ronald 1888-1957. 1977. Newton Abbot: Readers Union Group of Book Clubs, 1978.

Revenge is, however, a dish best served cold (not, I'm sure, that she would have put it in quite those terms), and it now seems quite possible that their pinchbeck brilliance will live on mainly grace to her own extraordinary group biography of - what's the collective noun for brothers? a bruise of brothers, perhaps - her father and uncles: needless to add, another prize from the shelves of Jason Books.

Does anyone read Ronnie's detective stories or theological musings nowadays - let alone E. V. Knox's volumes of collected skits from Punch? No, it's the world of Fitzrovia, that pre-swinging Sixties era of Dylan Thomas and Mervyn Peake's novels, that Fitzgerald seems to have been foredoomed to chronicle.

My overarching point, however, is that this is just a typical example of the kinds of serendipitous discoveries which seem to arise naturally when one enters the sacred precincts of Jason Books - some allusion to the Golden Fleece intended in that choice of name, perhaps?

Maud has a magnificent eye for quality, and her shop is well laid-out, well lit, and very reasonably priced. It's hard to imagine a more delightful bookish experience than browsing there, in fact.

Richard F. Burton: The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night (c.1940s)
Richard F. Burton, trans. The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night: A Plain and Literal Translation of the Arabian Nights Entertainments. 1885. 10 vols. U.S.A.: The Burton Club, n.d. [c.1940s].

Richard F. Burton, trans. Supplemental Nights to the Book of the Thousand and One Nights with Notes Anthropological and Explanatory. 1886-88. 6 vols. U.S.A..: The Burton Club, n.d. [c. 1940s].

I remember Jason Books from decades ago, when it was located at the back of a tiny alley off High Street (just behind the Simple Cottage vegetarian restaurant). It was there that I bought my first set of Burton's complete Arabian Nights, in the edition pictured above.

When Maud took it over from then owner Richard Poore, it moved to an attic in Lorne Street, and then to its present position behind Freyberg Square. In all of its various incarnations, though, it's been a source of wonders.

The Arabian Nights: The Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night, Rendered into English from the Literal and Complete French Translation of Dr. J. C. Mardrus by Powys Mathers. Introduction by Marina Warner. 6 vols. London: The Folio Society, 2003.
  • Vol. 1: with 8 colour illustrations by Kay Nielsen, 375 pp.
  • Vol. 2: with 8 colour illustrations by Grahame Baker, 424 pp.
  • Vol. 3: with 8 colour illustrations by Debra McFarlane, 424 pp.
  • Vol. 4: with 8 colour illustrations by Roman Pisarev, 424 pp.
  • Vol. 5: with 8 colour illustrations by Jane Ray, 431 pp.
  • Vol. 6: with 8 colour illustrations by Neil Packer, 448 pp.

And, to go full circle, it was there, rather more recently, that I bought the above lavishly illustrated version of E. Powys Mathers' translation of Dr. J. C. Mardrus's fin-de-siècle French translation of the Arabian Nights, probably the most entertaining and readable "complete" version available in English.

Hard-to-Find Books

Hard-to-Find Books
[2-8 St Benedicts Street, Eden Terrace, Auckland 1010]

Warwick Jordan's Hard-to-Find Books has an even more complex history, briefly summarised as follows on their website:
The legendary Hard to Find Bookshop (although it didn't have a name then) began in a garage in John Street, Ponsonby in 1983. In 1984 it moved to a shop in Onehunga (now David Tua's boxing gym), and in 1988 to a mainstreet Onehunga location. At one point it expanded to nine stores in five different cities until Warwick realised empire building wasn't really his passion. Even so, he did open one more shop in 2013 ... our Dunedin store which also houses our Internet stock. On June 13th 2018 the Onehunga store closed, opening again on 15th June 2018 at our miraculous new location - 2-8 St Benedict's Street, Eden Terrace, Auckland.
I was a fairly frequent visitor to the Onehunga store, but even more so now that the business has moved uptown to the debatable land between Upper Queen Street and Symonds Street. It's a wonderful source of back-catalogue items: definitely the best bookshop I know for those nagging gaps in your collection.

Diodorus Siculus. The Library of History. 12 vols. Loeb Classics. London: William Heinemann / Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1967, 1976, 1977, 1989.
  1. Books I-II: 1-34, Trans. C. H. Oldfather (1936)
  2. Books II: 35-end, III, IV: 1-58, Trans. C. H. Oldfather (1935)
  3. Books IV: 59-VIII, Trans. C. H. Oldfather (1939)
  4. Books IX-XII: 40, Trans. C. H. Oldfather (1946)
  5. Books XII: 41-XIII, Trans. C. H. Oldfather (1950)
  6. Books XIV-XV:19, Trans. C. H. Oldfather (195
  7. Books XV: 20-XVI: 65, Trans. Charles L. Sherman (1952)
  8. Books XVI: 66-95, XVII, Trans. C. Bradford Welles (1963)
  9. Books XVIII-XIX: 1-65, Trans. Russel M. Geer (1947)
  10. Books XIX: 66-110, XX, Trans. Russel M. Geer (1954)
  11. Books XXI-XXXII, Trans. Francis R. Walton (1967)
  12. Books XXXIII-XL / Index, Trans. Francis R. Walton & Russel M. Geer (1967)
Josephus. Works. 9 vols. Loeb Classics. London: William Heinemann / Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1961, 1966.
  1. The Life / Against Apion, Trans. H. St. J. Thackeray (1926)
  2. The Jewish War, Books I-III, Trans. H. St. J. Thackeray (1927)
  3. The Jewish War, Books IV-VII, Trans. H. St. J. Thackeray (1928)
  4. Jewish Antiquities, Books I-IV, Trans. H. St. J. Thackeray (1930)
  5. Jewish Antiquities, Books V-VIII, Trans. H. St. J. Thackeray & Ralph Marcus (1934)
  6. Jewish Antiquities, Books IX-XI, Trans. Ralph Marcus (1937)
  7. Jewish Antiquities, Books XII-XIV, Trans. Ralph Marcus (1943)
  8. Jewish Antiquities, Books XV-XVII, Trans. Ralph Marcus & Allen Wikgren (1963)
  9. Jewish Antiquities, Books XVIII-XX / General Index, Trans. Louis H. Feldman (1965)
Polybius. The Histories. Trans. W. R. Paton. Introduction by Col. H. J. Edwards. 6 vols. 1922, 1922, 1923, 1925, 1926, 1927. Loeb Classics. London: William Heinemann / Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1967, 1968, 1972.

I once horrified Bronwyn by buying a huge mountain of Loeb Classics Greek Historians from the Onehunga shop. I hope the guy who sold them to me was joking when he said that this would guarantee his wages for the next week, but who knows?

David Grann: The Lost City of Z (2009)
Grann, David. The Lost City of Z: A Legendary British Explorer's Deadly Quest to Uncover the Secrets of the Amazon. 2009. Pocket Books. London: Simon & Schuster UK Ltd., 2010.

Another, rather odder experience was my attempt to find a copy of The Lost City of Z in the Hard-to-Find branch in Dunedin. I can't quite remember why I was so anxious to read it - I guess I must have just seen the film - but I knew that if it was available anywhere, it would be available there.

And sure enough, it was! That's the great thing about Hard-to-Find: the sheer critical mass of books they stock make them the best place to look for particular troublesome items.

The funny thing came when I whipped out my Society of Authors membership card, which came with a list on the back of 'participating bookstores' in their 10% off for struggling writers scheme. Hard-to-Find was listed among them, and I'd used it many times at the Auckland store.

"Society of Authors? Is that even a thing? I mean, I've heard of the screenwriters guild and so on, but - did you make it up yourself?" asked the young lady serving at the counter that day.

"No, no, it's a real thing," I expostulated. "It's affiliated with PEN International."

"What's PEN International?" she riposted.

At this point I felt I'd better quit while I was ahead. Nice to know that someone working in a bookshop had so little interest in the people who actually produce the goods she was selling, but I guess it's good to be reminded of our collective insignificance from time to time.

It was pretty funny at the time, though. I'm sure she remained quite unconvinced by all my attempts to prove that there was such a thing as the Society of Authors, and the whole thing does sound a bit nerdy when you really come down to it ...

Jack Stillinger, ed.: The Poems of John Keats (2009)
Stillinger, Jack, ed. The Poems of John Keats: The Definitive Edition. London: Heinemann Educational Books Ltd., 1978.

I've bought a slew of books - fiction, poetry, travel - from the new brick edifice in St. Benedict's Street. It's now almost as choked with stock as the old Onehunga shop was. The above edition of John Keats was a very pleasant addition to their number. Honestly, you never know what you're going to see when you go in there, which is another good reason for rationing myself to occasional visits.