Undergrowth (1913)


— F. & E. Brett Young. Undergrowth [1913]. Cassell, [Popular Edition, 1925].

Undergrowth is a brisk, interesting novel of the subjective experience of the uncanny in a remote landscape. It is the first book by doctor and novelist Francis Brett Young (1884-1954), written with his brother Eric and published just before the first world war. The influences are plain to see: Algernon Blackwood and, explicitly, Arthur Machen. Undergrowth is formally a club story and begins with a frame setting as mundane and chummy as the opening of a John Buchan yarn (I’ll circle back to those three names on occasion), when the unnamed narrator walks through stinking, “devitalized” Soho streets to the Étoile gleaming amber through the fog. The table talk turns to “pagan” landscapes in England and “cheap literary revivals” dismissed by the narrator, but his companion proposes a remote mountain valley where, despite sunshine and a jolly little brook, he “left in a deuce of a hurry” after an uncomfortable half an hour.

Undergrowth is the story of Forsyth, a construction engineer who comes to rural Wales to supervise the completion of a dam and reservoir which will flood the sparsely populated Dulas valley. The manager is a cockney named Hayward. Forsyth’s lodgings are in the house of an unlettered Welsh shepherd, Abel Morgan, who functions as the Celtic other and stands as a mirror of the moods of Forsyth and Hayward. Forsyth has an uneasy dream his first night in the house:

It seemed to him that he was stifled with the green which surrounded the house; that the trees of the woods which climbed the mountain above, and the tangled thickets that tumbled to the river, were robbing him of his breath. On every side green multitudes hemmed him in — gnarled monsters with twisted arms for branches, sappy climbing things, relentless parasites, like snakes. He could not breathe for the oppression of this hostile vegetable life.

Morgan spends more time out of doors than in his house, He offers laconic remarks on the hills and vales, and recounts the significance of a Neolithic standing stone, the Dial Careg: one man’s deep-rooted oral history is another’s quaint folklore. Forsyth sorts through the books of his predecessor, the late Mr. Carlyon, a Cornishman who “read his head off”, found in a heap in one corner of the house: six-shilling novels, geology and engineering texts, books from Mudie’s circulating library, worm-eaten calf, and Arthur Machen. Forsyth begins reading a diary kept by Carlyon, the core of the novel, and this second frame becomes entangled with the story it encloses.

Undergrowth is a deft chronicle of sensations: the oppressiveness of the Mynydd Llwyd and Pen Savaddan, the mountains looming over the valley, and the menace of the tangled undergrowth filling its lower reaches, contrast with the tone of liberation in Carlyon’s diary and in the kinetic descriptions of climbing to the high ridges of Pen Savaddan and mountain meadows. The account of makeshift nursing during an epidemic in the work camp is rich in specific details of kindness and delirium. In Carylon’s diary and in the latter portions of the novel the traces of Blackwood and Machen show clearest; the transcendent function of landscape in narrative anticipates Buchan and weather, too (I’m thinking of Richard Usborne’s observation in Clubland Heroes).

It’s not a perfect novel. There are unexplained shifts and the substrand of Morgan the shepherd is essential to the larger arc of the story, but he suddenly vanishes after uttering his curse. and sometimes it feels like the narrative escapes from the authors’ control (maybe not a bad thing, but occasionally puzzling). Undergrowth introduces the notion of older settlements and histories being drowned beneath the waters of a reservoir for a distant city (prefiguring “The Colour out of Space” by H. P. Lovecraft). The Elan Valley in Powys, with its “drowned villages”, is often mentioned as a possible setting for the Dulas valley of the novel.

Undergrowth is a book I had been seeking for some time, repeatedly recommended by Mark Valentine, and I can see why. Valentine’s essay, “A Landscape At the End of the World: The Supernatural Terrain of Francis and Eric Brett Young”, gives an excellent overview of these writers an can be found in A Country Still All Mystery. Francis Brett Young was also author of Cold Harbour (1924), praised Lovecraft.

The last chapter of Undergrowth is a rush of enthusiams and terrors and ambiguities.  I think that one must read the story literally and join Forsyth in the snow on the Savaddan ridge to witness the vast lake “emptying itself in foaming masses above the broken masonry of the dam.”

recent reading (march through august 2022)

current reading :

— Marcel Proust. La Prisonnière [1923]. À la recherche du temps perdu III. Bibliothèque de la Pléiade. [still climbing the mountain].

— R.B. Russell. Fifty Forgotten Books. Sheffield : And Other Stories, [forthcoming, 13 September 2022].

recent reading :

— Marcel Proust. Sodome et Gomorrhe [1921-2]. À la recherche du temps perdu III. Bibliothèque de la Pléiade.
This was tough going at times, but there was always a remarkable passage or narrative surprise to quicken interest — and what a crack of the whip at end, rooted in earliest beginnings. 
Deep in volume III of the Pléiade edition, an aside points ahead to something I should perhaps have inferred and now the full arc of this whiny wallowing hilarious satiric narration comes clear. Proust is sufficient argument against fleeting worries over “spoilers”. He gives the game away himself a few times (from the outset, in fact); but more importantly, reading Proust affirms that literature is experiential. The dance of words performs itself upon the page and in the reader’s awareness, each time new, or else it’s nothing.
— — —
— Tom Lecky. Quarrying [Cover title]. One story and fifteen photographs. Understory Books, [2021]. Edition of 100 copies.
The story, “A Walk”, is subtle and minimalist, oblique and suggestive of the long consequences of family traumas.
— — —
— Ivy Compton-Burnett. Manservant and Maidservant. Gollancz, [1947]. Late Victorian household drama, in the conversations of a family and their servants, on the surface a very small world but the novel presents, unspoken but apparent, a dispassionate and clear-eyed indictment of the British class system and economic structure. An unexpected pleasure.
— The Herman Melville Collection of William S. Reese. Christie’s, [August 2022]. Illustrated auction catalogue, 100 lots, including many rarities, up at auction on 14 September.

Ngaio Marsh. Night at the Vulcan [1951]. Pyramid Books, [Second printing, December 1974].

— — —

— Robert Scoble. Raven. The Turbulent World of Baron Corvo. Strange Attractor Press, 2013.
— —. The Corvo Cult. The History of an Obsession. Strange Attractor Press, 2014.
Two well written, engaging, and thoroughly documented overviews of the Frederick Rolfe phenomenon: the people surrounding him and the evolution of the cult of the author.
— Guy Davenport. The Resurrection in Cookham Churchyard [1967]. [Jordan Davies, 1982].
.  .  . and everyone is there, in this kinetic Blakean procession, to be animated from Stanley Spencer’s giant painting .
— — —
— Eileen Gunn. Night Shift plus Usual and the Author plus Promised Land and much more. PM Press, [2022].
A volume in the excellent Outspoken Authors series, with Terry Bisson’s  interview of Eileen Gunn, “I Did, and I Didn’t, and I Won’t”, including this observation about an early job as a advertising copywriter :
“They taught me how to understand subjects I’d never studied and how to work with capitalists without becoming one.”
— Julian Symons. The Immaterial Murder Case [1945]. Penguin Books, [1954].
— Corina Bardoff. Food Restrictions. 2020.
Nimble, funny, literate Oulipian explorations of food and words. [Gift of WW].
— — —
— Michael Swanwick and Gardner Dozois. In His Own Words. Dragonstairs, [2022].  Edition of 60 copies.
Legendary editor Gardner Dozois interviewed by his friend.
— — —
Elizabeth Hand. Hokuloa Road. Mulholland Books. Little, Brown, [2022]. Another unsettling and gripping book, and a new place in our psychic geography (just maybe you can get there from Kamensic). This reader trusts Elizabeth Hand with his life and readerly attention, and is always rewarded Wherever her books lead, the narrative path is fascinating and the destination is beautiful and often frightening : that is to say, the classical elements of the sublime.
— Undefined Boundary. The Journal of Psychick Albion. Volume One / Issue One. Edited by Cormac Pentecost. Temporal Boundary Press, 2022.
Reading this, one has the sense that somehow England will find a way through the present mess.
— — —
— Alice Elliott Dark. Fellowship Point. A Novel. Mary Sue Rucci Books |Scribner, [2022].
Rich, beautiful exploration of friendship, place, and time (the Maine setting is  deeply rooted), with turns and surprises worthy of Dickens ; a notable feminist interrogation of privilege and expectations.
— — —
— John Clute. Sticking to the End. Beccon, 2022.
Essays and addresses, with book reviews from Strange Horizons and New York Review of Science Fiction; memorials of Gene Wolfe, David G Hartwell; and more.
— Hervé Le Tellier. L’Anomalie. Roman. NRF Gallimard, [2020].
Science fiction à l’Oulipo, witty and nimble.
— — —
—[Margaret Cavendish,] Duchess of Newcastle. The Description of a New World called the Blazing World. 1666.
— — —
— Mark Valentine. The Fig Garden and other stories. Tartarus, [2020].
Excellent new collection, with several original stories.
— — —
— Nicholas Daly. Ruritania. A Cultural History, from The Prisoner of Zenda to The Princess Diaries. Oxford University Press, [2020].
Interesting fun, with some odd gaps or omissions (such as John Buchan’s The House of the Four Winds and Avram Davidson’s Doctor Eszterhazy stories).
— — —
— Marius Kociejowski. A Factotum in the Book Trade. A Memoir. Biblioasis, [2022].
When the Romanian singer started in on « Un dimanche après la fin du monde » I was engaged ; and then the first pages of Chapter 13, The Man Collecting Names is a remarkable sequence of reflections. [Gift of DS].
— — —
— Eric G. Wilson. Dream Child. A Life of Charles Lamb. Yale University Press, [2022].
Read with great interest, Wilson is excellent on Lamb’s connections to the main literary figures of the day (Coleridge, Wordsworth, and others), and on the tragedies of his life.
[Bought in March but misshelved and only found in early June.]
— Michael Swanwick. The Once and Future Rye. The Whiskey That Was America. [At head of title:] The Proceedings of the American Martini Institute. A Report of the American Martini Laboratory. [Dragonstairs, 21 May 2022]. Edition of 80 copies.
— — —
— Christelle Téa. Bibliothèques. Dessins 2018-2021. Librarie Métamorphoses, [2022]. Exhibition catalogue, with introduction by Michel Scognamillo, “Christelle Téa, ou la stratégie de l’araignée”.
/ above : in the Bibliothèque Mazarine
— — —
— This World and That Other. [Stories by] John Howard [and] Mark Valentine. Sarob Press, 2022.
— Algernon Blackwood. The Lure of the Unknown. Essays on the Strange. [Edited with an introduction by Mike Ashley]. Swan River Press, 2022.
Collection of nearly two dozen essays, talks, and vignettes about the uncanny, spanning almost the entire career of supernatural writer Algernon Blackwood (1869-1951). The earliest, “The Psychology of Places” (Westminster Gazette, 30 April 1910), seems almost a gloss on his story “The Willows”; the majority of the pieces are from the late 1940s and were often delivered as radio or television broadcasts. Ashley notes Blackwood’s general reticence about any of his own psychic experiences. The essays “collected here reveal his views on the world and the occult, show his diverse reading and experiences, and his appreciation of the experiences of others.”
— Bruce Barker-Benfield. The Glossed Luke with the Letter A. A manuscript from St. Augustine’s Abbey Canterbury with an essay on the binding by Andrew Honey  and an introduction by William Zachs. Blackie House, 2020.
Illustrated history of a notable twelfth-century manuscript Gospel which survives in its original binding.
— — —

— Mark Tewfik. The Pirate King. Illustrated by Josh Grotto. Full color illustrations throughout. [40] pp. Chicago : Lanterne Rouge Press, 2022. Edition of 100 copies.
The text of The Pirate King resembles a children’s bedtime tale, while the collage illustrations suggest a very different story. A remarkable tension arises between the visual and verbal references.

fifteen years of the Endless Bookshelf

24 January 2022

Your correspondent celebrates fifteen years of simply messing about in books on this website (it started here, but of course the mischief and fun and seriousness go back much further). There are a few regular readers of the ’shelf, and perhaps once in a while a new reader will come across something in the archives which cannot be found elsewhere. I continue to read Proust in the Pléiades edition, with great interest and pleasure; I am now at the stage of Le Côté des Guermantes, and there is no stopping. There are also other books which come to hand, as I usually have a second or a third book which I am reading, or at least reading at. Some of them are noted below. I omit the names of several bibliographies I have been consulting as these fall under work in progress.

I have written a few essays recently where the lead time for publication is rather longer than for the Endless Bookshelf: I received Paul Witcover’s new book late last week, read it, and finished the review a couple of days later; and even had time to look at it in the cold light of day before posting it. That flexibility is one reasion why I figure I will keep writing these chronicles of small beer for a while longer. Perhaps you will want to read them.

I am very much looking forward to reading Robert Aickman An Attempted Biography by R. B. Russell (Tartarus Press); I have read some of Aickman’s stories but by no means all of them.

tattered remains of front wrapper of Ulysses, 1922

Wednesday 2 February marks the centenary of James Joyce’s Ulysses, published as a book in Paris on the author’s fortieth birthday in 1922. This is the darkened and tattered remains of the front wrapper of one of the 750 ordinary copies of the first edition, one of those scraps of paper which demand to be saved.

— — —

In February, I expect to be at the California International Antiquarian Book Fair in Oakland, booth 504 (James Cummins Bookseller) at the Oakland Marriott City Center, Friday 11 February through Sunday 13 February. If you are in the Bay Area, come by and say hello (and please let me know in advance if you would like a pass).

— — —

recent reading


— Henry C. Mercer. November Night Tales [1928]. [Introduction by Peter Bell]. Swan River Press, 2015.
Supernatural tales by the Pennsylvania polymath archaeologist, ceramicist, and polymath Henry C. Mercer (1856-1930), who was educated at Harvard (Class of 1879) and as a ceramicist played a key part in the American Arts and Crafts movement. His poured concrete mansion, Fonthill — named for William Beckford’s Gothic folly — is a turn of the century wonder; and his collections of American tools and vernacular objects pioneered the preservation of what is now called material culture. These stories range from rural Pennsylvania folklore to a forgotten treasure in the Italian Alps. The best of them is “The Wolf Book”, a tale of werewolves in the Balkans and an ill-starred book.

— Richard Thompson, with Scott Timberg. Beeswing. Losing My Way and Finding My Voice 1967-1975. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2021.
Memoir by one of the founders of Fairport Convention; his fabulous 1968 dream of Keith Richards and south London is worth the price of admission. Thompson played a solo acoustic show at a local Montclair venue not too long before the pandemic, and “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” was one of the great moments of that evening. Thompson’s songs express — like the late novels of Russell Hoban — the curious notion that loss is the great creative well for literature and song. Sad and beautiful can be triumphant at the same time, because the song outlasts the sorrow.

— T. Frank Muir. Hand for a Hand. Soho Crime, [2012]. Crime novel set in St. Andrews, Scotland.

— Sara Gran. The Book of the Most Precious Substance. A Novel. Dreamland Books, [2022].

— Michael Shea. Mr. Cannyharme. A Novel of Lovecraftian Terror. Foreword by Linda Shea. Edited by St. Joshi. Hippocampus, [2021].
San Francisco at the beginning of the AIDS crisis, with interdimensional beings, written by Michael Shea circa 1981. I found the first half of the book interesting, with well grounded scenes around the Tenderloin hotel managed by the writer-protagonist, and some choice, weird secondary characters. My interest waned as the supernatural elements unfolded.

recent reading : december 2021

current reading :

— Marcel Proust. À la recherche du temps perdu. [Bibliothèque de la Pléiade]. NRF Gallimard, [2019].
Ongoing project and a source of great pleasure. Am about a third of the way in.

recent reading :

— Julian Symons. The Blackheath Poisonings. A Victorian Murder Mystery. Harper & Row, [1978].
— —. The Kentish Manor Murders. Viking, [1988].

— M. John Harrison. English Heritage. Nightjar Press, [2021]. One of 300 signed copies.

— — —

— David R. Godine. Godine at Fifty. A Retrospective of Five Decades in the Life of an Independent Publisher. Godine, [2021].
A gorgeous and fun book, a richly illustrated memoir of people and books and life, a remarkable story well told. I’ve known Godine for half of these years, and it was a delight to see a few familiar books and many titles I hadn’t seen before (it’s also a fabulous and eclectic list of books to read). Design by Sara Eisenman.

— — —

— W. B. Mershon. The Passenger Pigeon. The Outing Publishing Company, 1907.
“The history of the buffalo is repeated in that of the wild pigeon, the extermination of which was inspired by the same motive: the greed of man and the pursuit of the almighty dollar . . . when one thinks of the burning of forest trees which took centuries to grow, merely to clear a piece of land to grow crops, it is not to be wondered at that the wild pigeon, insignificant, and not even classed as a game bird, so soon became extinct.”

— — —

— Avram Davidson. Beer! Beer ! Beer ! [Or All the Seas with Oysters, 2021].
Reviewed here.


— Michael Swanwick. Solstice Veritas or The Christmas Cat and Other Memories. Dragonstairs Press, 2021.

— — —

— Meghan R. Constantinou. The Daniel Press. Pioneer of the Private Press Movement. The Grolier Club, 2021.

— Paul Theroux. Facing Ka‘ena Point. Privately printed [by Jesse Marsolais], 2021. 100 copies, signed by the author.
Distributed by Bull’s Head Rare Books.

— Carl Williams Rare Books, Catalogue 3.1 & 3.2. Sex, Magick, Drugs, Revolution, Rock ’n’ Roll & Death, Selections from the Ludlow Santo Domingo Library. Carl Williams Rare Books, [November 2021].
Massive, two-volume illustrated catalogue of wild and fascinating stuff.

— — —

— Gilbert K. Chesterton. The Man Who Knew Too Much. Harper & Brothers, 1922.

— Dangerous Visions and New Worlds. Radical Science Fiction, 1950 to 1985. Edited by Andrew Nette and Iain McIntyre. PM, [2021].

recent reading : november 2021

— Roger Luckhurst. Gothic. An Illustrated History. Princeton University Press, [2021].
Massive full color account of the Gothic, as it has evolved “beyond its origins in architecture and the printed page to become fully transmedial”.  The discussion of architectural gothic makes clear how utterly transgressive the literary Gothic is, right from the get go. Wendy Walker discusses this in her afterword to Sexual Stealing. In Longsword (1762), the Historical Tale starts with shipwreck, imprisonment, betrayal of trust, and the eponymous earl is reported dead by a scheming rival who seeks to marry the countess. In The Castle of Otranto (December 1764; 2nd ed., April 1765), the giant black iron helmet crashes into Prince Manfred’s orderly world, killing his heir and unfettering his desires.

— Avram Davidson. Beer! Beer! Beer! [Novato, California : Or All the Seas with Oysters Publishing, November 2021]. Pictorial wrappers with a cover drawing by Avi Katz.

— — —

 

— Paul Theroux. Facing Ka‘ena Point. Privately printed [by Jesse Marsolais], 2021. 100 copies, signed by the author.

— — —

— William Blake. Songs of Innocence and Experience with other poems. Basil Montagu Pickering, 1866

— Gilbert K. Chesterton. The Man Who Knew Too Much. Harper & Brothers, 1922.

— — —

— Dangerous Visions and New Worlds: Radical Science Fiction, 1950 to 1985. Edited by Andrew Nette and Iain McIntyre. PM, [2021].

— — —

— Brendan C. Byrne. Accelerate. [Moonachie, New Jersey : printed by Trilon Graphics for Temporary Culture and the author, 3 November 2021].
A smart, dazzling book, a hurtling cross-country drive — west to east, for a change — powered by language and attitude.

— — —

— [Walpole, Horace]. The Castle of Otranto, A Gothic Story. The Second Edition. London: Printed for William Bathoe in the Strand, and Thomas Lownds in Fleet-Street, 1765.

All this desert

— Charif Majdalani. Dernière oasis. Roman. Actes Sud / L’Orient des livres, [2021].

Dernière oasis is an excellent novel of menace, in which a cosmopolitan art expert describes his descent into uncertain territory (somewhere northeast of Mosul, in the summer of 2014):

Le plaisir de la découverte des objets clandestins, mon déplacement jusqu’aux lieux où on me les dévoile et, après ça, l’aventure que représente leur rocambolesque transport, chaque fois suffisent à mon bonheur.

The setting is exotic, the prose is beautiful and musical, the pacing is deft, and things are just falling apart.

— — —

[A few days later]

Tout ce désert, c’est la faute des hommes qui ont gouverné la région, dit-il. Des irresponsables et des bandits.

And now, having experienced the full arc of the narrative arc of this very present and cosmopolitan novel (which encompasses old Lebanon, the fission of Iraq, the international art market, and the onset of the coronavirus), I remark upon how beautifully and precisely and evocatively Majdalani’s prose turns upon memory and place. There are many sly doublings of image and mood, intense conversations in unusual settings in this contemplative thriller. In his own head and with others, the narrator engages in a recurring discussion of history and its agents. Having since listened to a conversation between Gil Roth and Charif Majdalani when his earlier novel, Caravansérail (2007), appeared in English translation as Moving the Palace (New Vessel, 2017), it is clear that reflection upon historical decline is an important aspect of his work.

À chaque nouvelle catastrophique parvenant d’Irak ou de Syrie durant les années qui suivirent, ou de n’import quel coin de la planète en rapport avec les événements de cette région, j’ai resongé à l’affair du convoi du du général Ghadban et de son changement d’itinéraire, à cet embranchement, et à cette autre voie qui, si le convoi l’avait prise, aurait peut-être conduit non pas seulement Ghadban mais le monde entier ailleurs que là où ils ont été.

The reader shares the narrator’s experience of teetering at the edge of an abyss of time and incident. I am thinking about why, suddenly, in reading the opening passages of this novel, it was the mood of Ernst Jünger’s Auf den Marmor-Klippen (1939) which came up in memory (I am not going to re-read that one just now). Majdalani intimates, subtly and not with a sledge hammer, what we know in our hearts: that to be anywhere in the world — not only during the collapse of order in north Iraq in late summer 2014 — is to sense the increasing entropy of a closed system. And how beautifully the story is told.

I look forward to reading other books by Majdalani.

recent reading : september & october 2021

— Josh Rountree. Fantastic Americana. Stories. Fairwood Press, [August 2021].

— John Crowley. Engine Summer [1979]. Illustrations by Michael Cope. Subterranean Press, 2021. One of 250 numbered copies signed by the author.

— — —

— Joseph J. Felcone. New Jersey in Print 1693-1855. Selections from the Collection of Joseph J. Felcone. Princeton, New Jersey, 2021. Catalogue of a ghost exhibition [95 items]: Laws, scandals, novels, the first American card game, the origins of American drug culture, &c., &c. One of “a small number of copies for bookish friends”.

— — —

— Robert Aickman. Compulsory Games and Other Stories. Edited by Victoria Nelson. New York Review Books, [2018]. Read this, even if you think you know Aickman’s work. “The Coffin House” goes somewhere utterly unexpected, all in 5 pages, remarkable. Also includes stories such as “The Fully-Conducted Tour” and “The Strangers” (not published in his lifetime).

— Margery Allingham. Crime and Mr. Campion [Death of a Ghost, 1934. Flowers for the Judge, 1936. Dancers in Mourning, 1937]. Doubleday, [n.d., ca. 1960].

That Left Turn at Albuquerque

— Scott Phillips. That Left Turn at Albuquerque. Soho Crime, [2020].

— — —

— Anthony Bourdain. Kitchen Confidential. Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly [2000]. Harper Perennial [2007]. Revised edition, with a new afterword. A fun, gritty account. Your correspondent worked variously as a line cook, waiter, and catering jack of all trades in mid-1980s, and the absurd swagger and mania rings true. Don’t know why I didn’t see this when it first appeared.

 

The world whispers to you if you listen

— Josh Rountree. Fantastic Americana. Stories. Fairwood Press, [2021].

Fantastic Americana gathers 21 stories, with “Her Soul, A Dark Forest” and “In the Teeth” original to this volume, the others published in magazines and anthologies between 2006 and 2021. The twin lines of this wide-ranging collection are Rountree’s riffs on contemporary popular music and his dark, deep-rooted tales of Texas fantastika. There is also, as in Eugene Byrne and Kim Newman’s Back in the USSA (1997), the pleasure of messing with history. These aims do not necessarily exclude each other.

“February Moon” is  the concise narrative of an immigrant mother who knows well that the dangers of the old world have come with her family across the ocean to backwoods Texas. She knows how to deal with the werewolves and the ineligible bachelors. “In the Thicket, with Wolves” starts with a single mother in a contemporary setting and moves into primal folkloric territory. “Rewind” and “Rattlesnake Song” suggest the world is larger than we think while playing with the dead media tropes of video store and movie theater. In “Her Soul, A Dark Forest” a young boy recounts the flight of his mother from a stifling situation into the mesquite, for him as for us there are no answers, we can only experience another order of reality at odds with our own.

Among the unspoken concerns of this collection is what an earlier age would have call the domestic manners of the American family. Rountree will sometimes, as in “February Moon”, use a simple declarative sentence to suggest a monstrous situation that has nothing to do with shape-changers. The women know what’s what, the best of the guys try to put it together. And the worst of the men deserve what unfolds.

Your correspondent reads ventures into critical fiction sympathetically and yet with clear eyes. In “Chasing America”, where Paul Bunyan collides with Wild Bill Hickok, Steinbeck, Woody Guthrie, Kerouac, and the Kennedy assassination, the nature of American myth and myth-making is deftly illuminated. On the other hand, the juxtaposition of the Merry Pranksters and far future space war in “Intrepid Travelers” doesn’t work thematically or structurally for this reader, and is less fruitful. A few of the stories didn’t to compel this reader, but then there is “Escaping Salvation” where  unexpected supernatural phenomena define a post-collapse world and a new ecological order seems to hold sway.

The best stories are without question tales in which all these topics play with and against each other to make things happen. “Best Energies” plays with country music, Albert Einstein, and “old splinter teeth” — George Washington rendered immortal by control of the fountain of youth — and adds an independent Republic of Texas at odds with Washington, to create a fissile situation. “Fury Road” turns the songs of The Clash into a revolutionary toolbox, analogous to some of the transformations of popular culture in Michael Swanwick’s “The Feats of Saint Janis” or Jack Womack’s Elvissey. And “The Guadalupe Witch” is really something, a haunting river tale, the telling of which dismisses any epistemological ambiguities.

Fantastic Americana justifies its bold title. It’s worth looking for.

reading the map of Glasgow

special issue on re-reading : part two
reading the map of Glasgow
Wm. McIlvanney, The Papers of Tony Veitch, dust jacket
— William McIlvanney and Ian Rankin. The Dark Remains. Europa editions, [2021].
— William McIlvanney. Strange Loyalties. William Morrow, [1991].
— William McIlvanney. The Papers of Tony Veitch. Pantheon Books, [1983].
— William McIlvanney. Laidlaw [1977]. Europa editions, [2014].

‘It’s the questions you don’t ask that count. People don’t give answers. They betray them. When they think they’re answering one thing, they’re giving an honest answer to something else.’

Laidlaw (1977) and The Papers of Tony Veitch (1983) were something else when they appeared, and still are. The books stand with the hardest urban noir but with a remarkable difference. Where some of the 1950s classics of the form are nihilist mirrors of a messed-up America, Glasgow detective Jack Laidlaw burns with “that anger against so many things” and McIlvanney’s narratives show life on the under side of things with compassion (a quality for which Laidlaw is mocked by some of his colleagues). McIlvanney is master of the raw, unpleasant simile: the father of a murder victim “was still following the relentless parade of his thoughts, like an Orange March nobody dare cut across”. Laidlaw’s “free-lancing” behavior, “separate from the main investigation” yet bringing matters to a solution, is a cognate of Janwillem van de Watering’s “looking at it from different sides”.
I really enjoyed re-reading The Papers of Tony Veitch, where the intensity jumps the boundaries. “Laidlaw remembered that one of the things he hated most was elitism. We share in everyone else or forego ourselves.” And Chapter 5 is a succinct one-act play, after hours “in ‘The Crib’, a strangely named pub not really suitable for children, where on a good night Behemoth would have been no better than even money.” It starts innocuously enough, “Licensing laws can be fun.”
In Strange Loyalties McIlvanney switched to a first person narration (with all the limitations and strengths of that mode). The novel again probes class structures, memory, and hypocrisies. Laidlaw’s hurtling inquiry into his recently dead brother’s past stirs things up as effectively as Hammett’s Continental Op did in Red Harvest. The hard man in the fancy house walks into the cell door Laidlaw has opened (closing a narrative thread begun in the first book), but the answers Laidlaw finds offer no comfort.
The Dark Remains, just published, was completed by Ian Rankin from a partial manuscript left at McIlvanney’s death. The novel is deftly plotted, set in the earliest days of Laidlaw’s career, but Rankin’s style is less explosive than McIlvanney (“His writing style is more poetic than my own” as Rankin put it in a recent essay). The Dark Remains evokes Glasgow in the 1970s, and the narrative is seeded with allusions to the earlier novels (almost to the point of egging the custard). It is a nice homage to McIlvanney, and a spur to read or re-read the originals, especially The Papers of Tony Veitch.

Little, Big by John Crowley

special issue on re-reading : part one
Little, Big

When I take up a work that I have read before (the oftener the better) I know what I have to expect. The satisfaction is not lessened by being anticipated. [. . .] In reading a book which is an old favourite with me (say the first novel I ever read) I not only have the pleasure of imagination and of a critical relish of the work, but the pleasures of memory added to it. It recalls the same feelings and associations which I had in first reading it, and which I can never have again in any other way. Standard productions of this kind are links in the chain of our conscious being. They bind together the different scattered divisions of our personal identity. They are land-marks and guides in our journey through life.

— On Reading Old Books, from the Selected Essays of William Hazlitt 1778 : 1830. Edited by Geoffrey Keynes. Nonesuch, 1930.

John Crowley’s Little, Big is a book which I have read more times than I can count. It is also in that rare category of books which I give away (sometimes even the copy in my hand). Readers of the Endless Bookshelf will have seen allusions to my readings over the years (Appraisal at Edgewood, the summer of 2007, or Chapter XIV in A Conversation larger than the Universe or  “Strange Enough to Be Remembered Forever”). Everything which Hazlitt enumerates applies to re-readings of Little, Big. This year, when I picked up the novel, I paid attention to recurrences of words and parallels. I don’t say repetitions or doublings because the words often function — that is to say, carry meaning — in a new way when they return to the surface later in the book.
Contradictions across scale run through the book: rooms which seem larger than they are, or are smaller than they look — when Smoky is visiting the Woods (88), and Room 001 to which Sylvie delivers the package (331) — and the resonant phrase, the further in you go, the bigger it gets, is recited by Doctor Bramble in his lecture (43), by Hannah Noon at the wedding of Smoky and Alice (63), and by Auberon in the city park (351), with many echoes. “Daily Alice couldn’t tell if she felt huge or small. She wondered whether her head were so big as to be able to contain all this starry universe, or whether the universe were so little that it would fit within the compass of her human head” (178).
John Drinkwater told Violet, “I proved that every room needed more than two doors, but couldn’t ever prove than any could get along with only three” (50), which is a succinct an organizing principle of periodic recurrence as one could ask for. Take three examples. First: Smoky writes Alice that he has discovered a plaque reading Mouse Drinkwater Stone 1900 on a pillar at the entrance to a park (13) and a generation later Auberon begins brushing new leaving ivy and obscuring dirt from the plaque as Ariel Hawksquill holds a key to the gate (350). And second: the word constellation, invoked when Smoky is on his way to Edgewood (21), in the beautiful passage when Smoky and Alice and Sophie are looking at the stars on the last night of summer (177-8), and as Ariel Hawskquill contemplates the night-time paradox of the Cosmo-Opticon, when “the blackish Zodiac and the constellations could not be read” (343). And in between “Jolly, round, red Mr. Sun” who rises as a schoolboy reads from one of Doc’s fables of the Green Meadow in Smoky’s classroom (128) and the “ghastly red round sun” as it sinks late one afternoon when Mrs. Underhill takes Lilac on a tour of New York and Old Law Farm (312) are the lives of individual characters and the fate of afflicted nation under the Tyrant. In George Mouse’s successive awakenings from the effects of a “new drug he was experimenting with, of astonishing, just unheard-of potency” (500), familiar objects reassemble themselves into another fabric of reality. These recurrences in Little, Big are the Tale itself, inseparable now from the experience of the reader.

Little, Big is a source of great pleasure each time I read it. This pleasure is only increased by reading about the novel, in, for example, John Clute’s review in  the Washington Post Book World for 4 October 1981, or Snake’s Hands, edited by Michael Andre-Driussi and Alice Turner (which prints, twenty years later, Tom Disch’s contemporary review of Crowley’s “masterpiece”).

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detail from an invitation, 1981

Little, Big was published on 16 September 1981. Above, detail from an invitation to Little, Big Day in August 1981. And below, the author’s inscriptions to Thomas M. Disch in copies of the novel :

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Bantam trade edition (1981) and the Gollancz hardcover edition (1982) :

Little, Big (1981)

and the recent Gollancz Fantasy Masterworks edition (2015) with a fine, concise introduction by Graham Sleight :

 

In truth, with certain books, there are any number of reasons to have more than one copy. Little, Big is one of those personal “land-marks” (as Hazlitt calls them). To quote Tom Disch :

It’s readers who make a book a classic by reading it and getting their friend to read it, by treasuring it and making its wisdom part of their own. Little, Big deserves to be that kind of book.
So read it.

[HWW]