Phantastes is George MacDonald’s extremely peculiar attempt to create what he called a modern fairy-tale. It’s not like the vast majority of fantasy fiction; it’s a meandering, dreamlike tour of Faerie, a place sinister and delightful in equal measure. It’s a mythopoeic project, and it’s baffling and wonderful all at the same time.
“We’ve got a much easier job now than we should have had fifty years ago. If we’d had to modernize a country then it would have meant constitutional monarchy, bi-cameral legislature, proportional representation, women’s suffrage, independent judicature, freedom of the Press, referendums…”
“What is all that?” asked the Emperor.
“Just a few ideas that have ceased to be modern.”
Published in 1932 (just to put the above excerpt into context), Black Mischief is in classic Waugh style. It’s the story of Seth of Azania, the Oxford-educated new Emperor determined to modernise his superstitious island kingdom. It’s darkly funny, very well observed, and would make a refreshing shock to anyone whose impression of the man is limited to a vaguely pastiched impression of Brideshead Revisited.
Death on the Cherwell is a perfectly decent murder mystery, set in the fictional Persephone College of Oxford University. It’s probably not going to set your world alight; it’s most enjoyable, I think, for its tongue-in-cheek-isms on university life.
Undergraduates were capable of going to ridiculous extremes either to uphold a tradition or to smash it.
Undergraduates, in their own eyes, are responsible individuals.
Do you mean the girl’s soft [in the head]? Of course, that would be a reason for sending her to Cambridge.
Undergraduates, especially those in their first year, are not, of course, quite sane or quite adult. It is sometimes considered that they are not quite human.
And yet, unless my senses deceive me, the old centuries had, and have, powers of their own which mere ‘modernity’ cannot kill.
It’s not exactly Buffy. The key thing about Dracula’s conception of the vampiric is the notion of perversity, sickness, rot. The vampire is not just dangerous, or even deadly; it is sickening, wrong, “as though corruption had become itself corrupt.” Dracula himself can only go to ground in consecrated soil; “it is not the least of its terrors that this evil thing is rooted deep in all good; in soil barren of holy memories it cannot rest.”
Also important is that the vampire’s relationship with daylight isn’t as simple as needing to keep out of it lest he burst into flames; it’s that his power is essentially an evil one, waxing at night and waning during the daylight hours. He’s at his weakest in the afternoon, whether he’s inside or out.
In keeping with the theme of corruption, it’s important that Dracula is at least prima facie correct and proper, polite and courteous and elegant – but equally important that this is a façade. There is hair in the palms of his hands, and he climbs the walls of his castle head-down like a lizard. He is a monster, an unholy relic of an earlier time, and he has come, wrapped in a cocoon of pretence, to today – to modernity. There is no horror in reading this as a period piece. It’s the notion of this forgotten evil, this corruption, existing now, when we have streetlights and electricity and medicine, that really drives its wrongness home.
So maybe it is like Buffy after all.
But occasionally we get bored of ridiculously headstrong girls who defy all social conventions and thereby obey all literary conventions.
OK, so, strictly speaking the friend I was discussing Austen with said this not about Pride and Prejudice but about Fanny Price from Mansfield Park (whom I’d just described as “wetter than a flannel that’s just washed up on the shores of Cornwall having floated all the way from the Gulf of Mexico”). The point is, though, that I didn’t quite think it a fair characterisation of Austenian heroines (Lydia Bennet, who’s very much not an example of the type, is the one who goes off and lives unmarried with a man, for example). I don’t think it’s a fair characterisation of Catherine Morland (whose obedience to literary conventions is a result of the fact that she thinks she’s in a gothic novel); it’s not a fair characterisation of Anne Eliot (getting married in your late twenties is presented as unusual, and Anne would have expected to remain a spinster, but that’s not the same as defying social conventions); it might possibly be a fairer characterisation of Marianne than Elinor, although not having read Sense and Sensibility recently I couldn’t swear to it; Emma has her flirtation with Frank Churchill (“it must have such an appearance as no English word but flirtation could very well describe. ‘Mr Frank Churchill and Miss Woodhouse flirted together excessively’”) but that’s about as far as she pushes the limits of decorum; Fanny Price ex hypothesi doesn’t behave like that; and, apart from giving Lady Catherine a dressing-down, neither does Lizzie Bennet (much).
What I do think is important to remember, and easy to forget, about Austen’s heroines, however, is how young they are (with the exception of Anne Eliot). Elizabeth Bennet isn’t yet twenty-one. She gets silly crushes (Wickham; Darcy’s cousin). She’s not quite as silly as Catherine Morland, or as convinced of her own talents as Emma Woodhouse, or as own-two-feet-less as Fanny Price, but she’s a young woman, barely more than a girl, not some aloof, sexless, quip-making construct. It’s the contrast with her mother and sisters that makes her appear otherwise, and it’s tempting to put them at opposite extremes; but it’s vital to bear in mind that although they, the peripheral characters, can be one-dimensional caricatures, that’s no reason to read her as one too.
Lian Hearn’s Tales of the Otori are interesting and rather captivating books. For better or for worse, most fantasy (Tolkein, Lewis, Eddings, Pullman, Pratchett) is essentially Anglo-Saxon (Le Guin’s Earthsea books are an interesting exception). Hearn’s books, on the other hand, are Nipponian (Nippon or Nihon being the Japanese words for Japan – and yes, this term is importantly different from “Japanese” in this context).
Enough parentheticals. The Tales of the Otori, which also come with a hefty prequel and sequel, are an excellent and refreshing set of works which fully deserve their space on a bookshelf. If you’re looking for treachery, love and death, give them a try.
Suddenly, watching the tangled colours of Holly’s hair flash in the red-yellow leaf light, I loved her enough to forget myself, my self-pitying despairs, and be content that something she thought happy was going to happen.
Inspiration for one of Audrey Hepburn’s most enduring roles, Breakfast at Tiffany’s defies categorisation or description. Holly Golightly is enchanting, bizarre, irrepressible, both force of nature and unsure young girl.
This is absolutely a story you should read, and the remaining three in the collection (“House of Flowers”, “A Diamond Guitar” and “A Christmas Memory”) are also excellent.
The book before the cult classic, The Princess Bride is (ostensibly) an abbreviation of a vast work of political satire by a chap named Morgenstern, with all the boring bits cut out and all the juicy fight scenes left in. There is no original, and Morgenstern himself is also fictional; the book is surrounded by an extra layer of fiction. Before Chapter One, there are thirty-odd pages of introductory spiel. You know the sort of stuff. “How I Came To Write This Book”. “My Philosophy Of Writing”. “A Funny Anecdote Or Two”. “What These Characters Mean To Me”. They end with the author’s name, and sometimes a city and date, on the right hand side of the page. (PG Wodehouse wrote the best one ever in his Summer Lightning.) Usually these are skippable. This one is part of the story. Every word of it is a falsehood. There is no psychologist wife called Helen; no son; no Miss Roginski (I’m pretty sure). You must read it.
Even the pre-preface bit in my edition, the one that talks about making the movie, maintains the pretence. There were lines in the original saying that you could write to the publisher for extra material; apparently if you did, you got a letter detailing the copyright difficulties they’re having with the Morgenstern estate. It turns the novel into a performance piece.
And also, you know, fun story and all that. But the fictional story of the novel is what really makes it stand out.
The Old Man and the Sea – I think my verdict on this has to be “strangely compelling”. In simple summary, the plot sounds trivial (man catches big fish); in actuality, it’s amazingly powerful. A short and beautiful piece.
Author George MacDonald
Best character Sir Percival.
Author Evelyn Waugh
Best character Basil. Obviously.
Death on the Cherwell
Author Mavis Doriel Hay
Best character Betty Pongleton.
Author Bram Stoker
Best character Van Helsing.
Pride and Prejudice
Author Jane Austen
Best character Mr Bennet. So very gloriously Mr Bennet.
Across the Nightingale Floor
Author Lian Hearn
Best character Otori Shigeru.
Grass for His Pillow
Author Lian Hearn
Best character The abbot.
Brilliance of the Moon
Author Lian Hearn
Best character Hiroshi.
Breakfast at Tiffany’s
Author Truman Capote
The Princess Bride
Author S Morgenstern William Goldman
Best character Inigo Montoya.
The Old Man and the Sea
Author Ernest Hemingway
Best character The boy.