Friday, October 17, 2014

A Traveller in Time: Hild

Nicola Griffith, Hild (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013)


Hilda historical Whitby fiction
Hild is not a novel for everyone. If you are put off by the thought of a dense, slow-moving narrative largely preoccupied with political machinations in a remote period of British history, populated by a large cast of characters whose every other name seems to begin with Os- or Aeth- or Ed-, you might want to look elsewhere. But readers for whom this sounds like an intriguing challenge rather than a form of literary torture will be rewarded by a rich and immersive experience of that alien land, the past, and by the chance to encounter an unforgettable central character.

Who is Hild? She is based on a real person, the daughter of a displaced king in seventh-century Northumbria. She became known to history as Saint Hilda, founder of the important abbey of Whitby, a teacher of bishops and advisor of kings. In nearly 600 pages, the novel only deals with her early years, bringing her just over the threshold of womanhood. Only a few fragments of fact-cum-legend remain about this period of Hild's life, tiny seeds that in Griffith's imagination have blossomed into a comprehensive vision of an extraordinary girl growing up in a dangerous and revolutionary time, when petty kings fought for territory with ruthless brutality, and a strange new religion became another weapon in their wars.

Friday, October 10, 2014

My First Robertson Davies: Tempest-Tost

Robertson Davies, Tempest-Tost (1951; Penguin, 1980)


The first book you read by a favorite author has a special quality. Even if there are other books by the same author that you realize are more worthy of recognition, the joy of discovery lends your "first" a lingering glow. Sometimes, the particular circumstances of finding the book are stamped on the memory as well. I'm revisiting some of these "first reads" and giving some second (or fifth or twentieth) impressions.

Robertson Davies first novel
When I was in college, my campus bookstore had a tempting array of current fiction on the way to the textbooks. Among these were several strikingly designed Penguin paperbacks by an author named Robertson Davies. After looking at them for years I finally bought one: Davies's first novel, Tempest-Tost, about an amateur production of Shakespeare's play in a provincial Canadian town.

And how glad I was that I did! With a sure comic touch, Davies assembles his cast of characters and lets them make fools of themselves, occasionally learning something in the process, in the best Shakespearean tradition. The pompous English professor who simply must play Prospero with his own special touch; the drama club president, preoccupied with impressing her social superiors; the suddenly stage-struck mathematics teacher whose staid and comfortable life is shaken up by his venture into theatrical circles; the gloriously unconventional church organist with a passion for Henry Purcell; the young assistant director bound by painful ties to his invalid mother; all these and more entertain and divert us with their own comedy alongside the one they are preparing for the stage.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Lost in Translation: Le Grand Meaulnes

Alain-Fournier, Le Grand Meaulnes (1913; Penguin, 1966, with the 1959 translation by Frank Davison)


Alain-Fournier French novel
It's been a while since I read a novel in translation. As I read Le Grand Meaulnes, one of the most acclaimed and popular novels that came out of the past century in France, I pondered the various aspects of the writer's art, and how they can or cannot be translated from one tongue into another. There's the basic plot and character framework, the general raw materials of fiction; this element, I think, can be translated, because it can be understood independent of the language used. Then there's how these materials are worked with: how the plot is structured, how the narration works, what kinds of images are chosen, how description is balanced with plot development. This also can be translated to a certain extent.

But the third element, the actual sound-sculpture of the language, which gives color and emotional resonance to the story, is not translatable. A translator may come up with a new creation that has some parallel relationship with the original, hoping to evoke similar feelings and experiences through the second language, but they cannot ever be truly the same, because they live in a realm beyond intellectual meaning. The need to convey meaning on the first two levels hampers the translator, because it limits him or her in the words that can be chosen, and the ones that are available inevitably color the translated work in a new way. Perhaps the most honest approach would be to discard the original work altogether and try to create a new one, new in plot, structure, and diction, that approaches the essence of the original. But this is not what we call translation.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Witch Week is coming: October 31-November 6

Diana Wynne Jones celebration readalong


You may just possibly have heard the news already, but here's another reminder. At the end of this month, I'm hosting a blog event to celebrate fantasy fiction and one of my favorite authors, Diana Wynne Jones. For the original announcement and sign-up post, click here.

I was beyond thrilled that when I asked five of my favorite bloggers if they would contribute guest posts, they all said yes:
You are not going to want to miss any of these! For the final day, we'll be having a readalong of Witch Week itself.

Most of my DWJ collection (they don't QUITE fit on one shelf).
Part of my DWJ collection (they don't QUITE all fit on one shelf)

You could do worse than spend the month reading these six fantastic books, or any others by DWJ that you may fancy. Happy reading, and I do hope you'll join us! To sign up, please leave a comment (here or on the announcement post), and if you are a button-posting type, grab the Witch Week button above and link to this post to help spread the word. Then come back to ECBR on October 30 for a preview before the real fun starts. It's going to be a magical week.

Friday, September 26, 2014

My First Diana Wynne Jones: Charmed Life

Diana Wynne Jones, Charmed Life (Greenwillow, 1977)


The first book you read by a favorite author has a special quality. Even if there are other books by the same author that you realize are more worthy of recognition, the joy of discovery lends your "first" a lingering glow. Sometimes, the particular circumstances of finding the book are stamped on the memory as well. I'm revisiting some of these "first reads" and giving some second (or fifth or twentieth) impressions.

Diana Wynne Jones Chrestomanci
The first DWJ I ever purchased
I first encountered the name of Diana Wynne Jones when at age fourteen I wrote a letter to my favorite author at the time, Robin McKinley, and received this response. I had asked her to tell me her favorite book and not to answer War and Peace (I guess I was fed up with high school required reading lists). She gave quite an extensive list of books and authors, all of which I duly checked out.

Charmed Life was the first DWJ title I found in my local bookstore, and I purchased it forthwith. Here is the first paragraph:
Cat Chant admired his sister Gwendolen. She was a witch. He admired her and he clung to her. Great changes came about in their lives and left him no one else to cling to.
Four simple, almost simplistic sentences, but as we progress further into the story we find out that there are many layers beneath the surface. The bland statement "She was a witch" turns out to have quite a different significance in Cat and Gwendolen's world than in ours, as witchcraft is an ordinary occupation, like hairdressing or teaching music. And Cat's admiration of and dependence on his older sister, which seem entirely natural considering that the "great changes" in their lives include the sudden death of their parents in a boating accident, turn out to be problematic. For magic may be common in Cat's world, but it's not always innocuous, and Gwendolen is not using her powers to benefit her young brother, but rather the opposite.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Darkness in Delphi: My Brother Michael

Mary Stewart, My Brother Michael (1960; Chicago Review, 2009)


http://www.powells.com/cgi-bin/partner?partner_id=37349&html=ppbs/37349_3768.html?p_bkslv
Mary Stewart is rightly acclaimed for creating wonderfully robust settings in her books, which serve as much more than mere stage backdrops to the action. So strong is the sense of place, sometimes, that the setting almost becomes a character or a plot device in its own right.

Such is the case with My Brother Michael, which I picked up in honor of Mary Stewart Reading Week. The place is Delphi, on the slopes of Mount Parnassus in Greece, once considered the navel of the world and still one of the most numinous sites of the Western world. While telling one of her thrilling tales of mystery and danger, Stewart also manages to evoke the spirit of Greece, both ancient and modern, in a strikingly vivid way. From a memorable scene of the difficulties of passing a bus on a mountain road, to explorations of the god-haunted landscape of Parnassus, to stories of some of the tragedies incurred during and after the Second World War, she makes us feel that we have encountered this brilliant, desolate land, and experienced some of its treasures -- and its burdens.