I devoted my last entry to the novel written by Hugh Lupton, ‘The Ballad of John Clare.’ The novel brought alive for me John Clare and the world in which he lived and made me want to know more about him, his poetry and of the author of ‘The Ballad of John Clare’, Hugh Lupton, an oral storyteller. I had not been aware that oral storytelling continues in the UK and that there are performers like Hugh Lupton who do this for a living.
A few words first about Hugh Lupton’s interest in John Clare and his work. In the author’s note for ‘The Ballad of John Clare’ it was the need to depict the emotions which permeated Clare’s early years as well as the language which the poet knew that were the most important elements for Lupton. On Hugh Lupton’s website one can listen to his reading of one of Clare’s poems as well as to Lupton’s own poem about the poet.They capture the reader’s imagination. Hugh Lupton deserves great credit for his efforts to popularise the poetry of John Clare and have him seen as one of the major poets of his time.
What I have found particularly interesting about Hugh Lupton are his performances of classic stories which we all recognise. For example, he has been performing The Iliad, The Odyssey, as well as stories based on the legends of Robin Hood and the Rood. I haven’t had the pleasure of hearing Hugh Lupton’s perform live but having listened to the recordings on his website I recommend everyone to do the same. Hugh Lupton’s voice grabs your attention, before his imagination engages you in the narrative and let you share the excitement of an enthralling world. It seems as if the story you are being told is the only thing that you need to hear, as if it was the latest news which will will keep you safe, inform you and give you comfort.
Many of the stories Hugh Lupton performs end up as books for children, ‘The Ballad of John Clare’ is his only adult novel.
It seems to me that the oral storytelling may be a form which a lot of us have forgotten about but which speaks to everyone because it expands one’s imagination and reminds us of the first stories we have heard as children before we could read. Oral storytelling transports us into a different world and leaves us mesmerised. All it takes is a poem, a story, one’s imagination and an audience which is eager to listen.
When you think of Victorian poets whom you’ve heard of and whose work is familiar to you, the odds are that those poets will be, for instance, Robert Browning, Alfred Lord Tennyson or Christina Rossetti. But there was also a poet at the time who’s been gaining recognition after his lifetime and who had produced a significant amount of poetry. His name is John Clare.
As I discovered Clare a few years ago, I was surprised that a figure that prolific is so little known. When I say little, I mean that every literature enthusiast knows Keats and Coleridge, few, however, have heard of Clare. Neither had I. When I came across his poem ‘I Am!’ I was smitten with the author’s sensitivity and I remembered his name.
Recently I had a chance to read ‘The Ballad of John Clare’ written by Hugh Lupton and published by Dedalus in 2010 and I was interested to see the author’s take on the life of John Clare. It sometimes happens that a famous artist’s life and gift are dramatised and given an atmosphere of mystery. Consequently, I anticipated a novel which would do exactly that – depict an unhappy prodigy whose only comfort in life was his own art. But I was pleasantly surprised when I started reading.
In his novel Lupton introduces us to the world which John Clare was familiar with and which shaped him as a person and as a poet. When you read Clare’s poems, you notice that there are two main concerns. The first is the country, its nature and customs and the second is the solitary individual who craves for love and tries to make peace with himself. Lupton depicts these concerns by a detailed portrayal of the country life and descriptions of the character of John Clare. Indeed, the chapters in the novel are divided in such a way that each one is a name of a custom or a season such as Sheepshearing and Christmas. The novel starts with the Rogation Sunday during which the village comes together and in those circumstances the reader meets the characters for the first time. As far as the character of the poet is concerned, we learn: ‘He is bookish and solitary and cannot seem to set his hand to any trade.’ Also his posture stands out as he is ‘some five feet tall from head to foot.’
What is important is that Lupton does not focus on the poet but on the man. Also, the novel depicts the figure of the poet during his early years of his life when he was turning from a young boy to an adult. Consequently, it is for the reader to decide in what way Clare’s environment influenced him and how his experiences seeped into his poetry.
‘The Ballad of John Clare’ is an interesting read because of the soulful images that the author provides, such as the descriptions of nature or the scene of Clare’s first kiss. The novel is a tribute to John Clare as it brings the reader closer to the poet’s beloved environment. More than that, one sympathises with the figure of the poet as he is not depicted as a prodigy but as a man whose concerns are the same as ours.
As I was reading The Dedalus Book of Lithuanian Literature, I noticed that there are two features which many of the stories have in common and I was a little bit surprised by what they were, having read the Introduction in which its author emphasizes the importance of historical events that influenced Lithuanian literature. The common themes which stand out for me are the importance of nature and the emphasis on an individual’s experience. The three stories which I would like to discuss to illustrate this are Antanas Vaičiulaitis’s ‘The Light of Your Face,’ Romualdas Lankauskas’s ‘No One’s to Blame’ and Juozas Aputis’s ‘A Cry in the Full Moon.’ Vaičiulaitis(1906 -1992), Aputis (1936-2010), Lankauskas (b1932) all wrote in the twentieth century.
In the first short story ‘The Light of Your Face,’ the reader is not provided with information about the setting or when the story is set. The story revolves around an old woman, Theresa. She struggles to come to terms with the hostility and contempt of the younger members of her family. It is only when she leaves the house and begins to wander in the countryside that she feels alive and at home. Nature is a source of comfort and creates a place which is familiar and welcoming, in contrast to the treatment Theresa receives from people.
In ‘No one to Blame’, the author deals with the themes of infidelity, responsibility and blame. There is an emphasis on the relationships between people and their treatment of one another. The story is written in a naturalistic mode, unlike the short story discussed earlier. Although the questions which the work poses are related to a particular situation, they are universal problems which constantly occur in our lives. As in the first story the role of nature is given an important role in a man’s life. Here, however, it does not serve as a shelter but rather an escape and a source of beauty and astonishment. As the narrator goes fishing with his friend, he ponders on how humanity is becoming more distant from nature and lacks the feeling of infinity and wonder which it provides.
In the third story, ‘A Cry in the Full Moon,’ the author introduces a figure of a hunchback and compares him to Victor Hugo’s Quasimodo. The hunchback wanders around the village and we observe through his eyes the lives of the villagers. Unable to express himself and seen as ‘different’, he is an outcast. At the same time, however, he is aware of his superiority to the others precisely because he is different. He recognises simple phenomena and reacts to them instinctively. He is an interesting character and by seeing the world through the eyes of an outcast we are forced to see reality differently and have our preconceptions challenged. You feel both sympathy and sadness for the hunchback. ‘A Cry in the Full Moon’ makes you ask questions about yourself and those who live around you.
Nature and its effect on the individual permeate the Lithuanian short stories in various guises and extents. It is what remains in my mind after reading The Dedalus Book of Lithuanian Literature.
I have always enjoyed anthologies and collections of stories and poetry because of the variety of different voices, subjects and styles. Sometimes there are stories that you knew already so you relive the emotions and landscapes that you remember and cherish, and it feels comforting to know that you have them on your shelves. But it happens almost every time that along with your favourites, there are short stories which you have not known and you are curious to read. There is also a different scenario. Namely, sometimes an anthology can serve as an introduction to a certain theme, genre or a country.
The Dedalus Book of Slovak Literature, which was an inspiration for this entry, turned out to be such an introduction for me. There is a wide range of subject matter and styles that take you into the heart of Slovakia.
The first story in the anthology is ‘Tinker’s Christmas’ written by Martin Kukučín (1860-1928), who is one of the most important Slovak authors of his period. It is a realistic portrayal of life in Slovakia in the late nineteenth century during the Hungarisation of the country. Through the eyes of Durko, the reader observes an individual’s struggles during the turbulent times before WW1. As Durko comes back home, he does not recognise the dramatic changes that have taken place and tries to make sense of the new situation. Very different is ‘Edita’s Eye’ by Gejza Vámoš (1901-1956). Aside from his literary achievements, Vámoš was a doctor and worked in China during WW11. ‘Edita’s Eye’ is a somewhat grotesque story whose narrator ponders on creation and existence. Edita is a strange character and the narrative is ambiguous so that the reader is never quite certain what the author intends so you feel you should read it again. A total change of feel and atmosphere comes with Vladimir Balla’s story ‘Pregnancy’. Born in 1967, Balla is an economist and a journalist. ‘Pregnancy’ takes place in a non-specified location or time. The characters seem to be bored with themselves as the reader first encounters them. They treat one another disrespectfully although they seem to have a close bond as well. There are sudden turns of action although they all seem absurd and we are left with the feeling of uncertainty as the story provides us with one last surprise at the end.
These three stories are my favourite ones in the anthology. The Dedalus Book of Slovak Literature is an excellent introduction to the Slovak literary world and its concerns. It was a voyage of discovery for me during which, for me, unknown writers brought alive a country I knew nothing about. I am grateful to them for giving me a glimpse of Slovak history and culture.
Wordsworth was right when he wrote that Cambridge is a ‘fairy work of earth.’ To find out what he meant by these words you need to visit the city. For me Wordsworth’s words stand for charm that the city holds. Cambridge is peaceful but also a creative place. It is in part of England’s history and its past but it also very much a city of today and the future. You will find a moment of quiet in Christ’s Pieces where you can lie down or have lunch, sitting on the grass. When you make your way to the Fitzwilliam Museum or walk along Trinity Street, you will see people drawing or playing music. The historic buildings of the University of Cambridge, which is the second oldest university in the United Kingdom, will take your breath away.
Like Wordsworth, I was struck by the beauty of King’s College Chapel when I found myself on King’s Parade, having walked through the centre. And like the poet himself, I felt myself being drawn to the place with an inexplicable force. Indeed, I sat in front of the chapel for a long time, contemplating the beautiful structure. I, like any other student of English Literature, wished to see one of England’s most beautiful architectural achievements and the university at which some of my favourite poets studied. Although you can’t visit all of the colleges’ historic buildings, you can see most of the halls and chapels and spend time in the courtyards which were walked centuries before by some of the greatest English writers, from Christopher Marlowe to Lord Byron and more recently by E.M. Forster, C.S. Lewis and Sir Salman Rushdie. Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes met in Cambridge.
King’s College chapel is, without a doubt, the most stunning place in the city. Its history is long and interesting, suffice to say that it was Henry VI who began the building of the chapel and it was finished during Henry VIII’s reign. The structure’s Gothic vaulting, stained glass windows and meticulously designed royal symbols, such as fleur de lys and portcullis will make you want to look again and again so that you walk looking up all the time. Although all of the colleges are beautiful and worth seeing, for me it is the Fitzwilliam Museum which stays in my mind because of the grandeur of its facade and the beautiful marble interior and its fine art collection.
I understand Wordsworth’s infatuation with the city, its nature and streets. As I walk through yet another passage, lane or side street I discover new places, beautiful houses, another college. Cambridge makes one want to work and explore during the day and listen to the silence which seems to hover over the university colleges in the evening as the air gets chilly and the streets are almost empty.
If you are an avid reader and read a wide range of books and different authors and read the literary magazines and the literary pages of the newspapers, you might think that your perspective on literature is vast and you know more or less what is happening in the literary world. Who won the Booker Prize, who are the big authors authors of the moment and which novels are currently being adapted into films. However most of us tend to read books from very few different countries. I certainly do and feel because of this I have been missing out on countless different perspectives.
What brought about these reflections was reading The Dedalus Book of Estonian Literature, first published in 2011. I hadn’t read any Estonian literature before and I was entranced by many stories in the book. I would like to mention three. They demonstrate how your preconceptions about countries that you no little about can be wrong and how you can be entertained and surprised by unknown authors from a small linguistic area.
The first story which I found moving was ‘Bread’ by Eduard Vilde. The author lived at the turn of the twentieth century and his stories are considered to be classics in Estonia. ‘Bread’ is a bitter and moving short story about a man’s love and devotion. In the midst of a celebration, the reader’s attention is directed towards an individual’s troubles. Vilde’s story is told in a matter-of-fact manner and does not stir up strong emotions until the last sentence when you realise the character’s feelings and the author’s power to move his readers.
I could not omit an interesting fact about the figure of Vilde. As his name, undoubtedly, reminds one of the great Irish writer Oscar Wilde, an Estonian sculptor Tiiu Kirsipuu decided to design a sculpture of the two w/vildes and since its completion in 1999 it has been located in front of Eduard Vilde café in an Estonian city of Tartu. In 2004 Estonia joined the European Union and as a way to celebrate it, a copy of Kirsipuu’s sculpture was presented to Galway in Ireland.
The second story which drew my attention is a short story by Juhan Liiv, an Estonian poet and writer of the turn of the twentieth century. His house in the province of Tartu is now a museum open to those interested in the life of the famous Estonian poet and there is the Juhan Liiv Poetry Prize awarded every year. Despite the fact that Liiv’s story ‘On Lake Peipsi’ is only five pages long, it is a successful exploration of the human mind when one is faced with danger and of what people learn from their experiences.
Last but not least, the third story from the Dedalus anthology which I would like to recommend is Anton Hansen Tammsaare’s ‘Grandfather’s Death.’ The author is yet another writer who is considered to be one of Estonia’s classic authors. Like Vilde and Liiv, Tammsaare lived at the turn of the twentieth century and was recognised not only in Estonia but also in a few other countries as some of his works were translated into, among others, Latvian and French. For a few years until his death he lived in an apartment in Kadriorg and today the place is turned into Tammsaare Museum. In his short story ‘Grandfather’s Death’ which begins with the grandfather’s somewhat comical prediction about his own death, the author explores the theme of death through the eyes of a boy and gives the reader an eerie story which, like the other stories in the anthology, will linger in the mind long after the book has been read.
September has just begun. Nature is changing, the wind gets chilly and the holiday season is over. On the 22nd we will welcome autumn. Every month people are looking forward to see what the next few weeks are going to bring and the feeling of a new beginning appears as you flip the calendar sheet. I’ve decided to take a brief look at what we associate with September and what we can expect of it this year, particularly.
In the film You’ve Got Mail, the main male character Joe Fox narrates that the autumn always makes him want to buy things for school and there would be nothing peculiar about it had it not been for the fact that Joe is a man in his thirties who has no need for anything to do with school. Similarly, in his poem ‘September’ John Updike enumerates erasers, chalk and new books among the things which remind him of this month. The message, therefore, is there – the autumn is a time when the academic year begins and even if you’ve graduated a long time ago, you still associate September with school and reminisce about it a little bit.
As far as literary celebrations are concerned, September is a month awaited by Tolkien fans as the 22nd of September is dubbed Hobbit Day due to the birthday of Bilbo and Frodo Baggins. The celebration lasts more than one day, however, as the week which contains the joint Baggins birthday is frequently called Tolkien Week. There is one more connection between September and J.R.R. Tolkien as September 2 marks the forty-third anniversary of the author’s death.
If you look at current magazine covers or any news website you will notice that there are two cinema or TV releases which are most anticipated this month. The first is the second season of the popular drama Poldark while the other is Bridget Jones’s Baby, the third film about Bridget’s personal adventures. While both pieces are based on novels – Poldark was written by Winston Graham and published in 1945 whereas Bridget Jones’s Diary was written by Helen Fielding and published in 1996 – the third Bridget Jones film is not based on Fielding’s sequel.
For Dedalus September means two releases. The first is a new edition of Diego Marani’s New Finnish Grammar. Translated by Judith Landry, the novel is the first of Marani’s trilogy and it tells a story of a wounded soldier who, having lost his memory, is aided by a Finnish doctor who helps him recreate his identity. The second book from the trilogy, The Last of the Vostyachs, was published by Dedalus in 2012 while the third, The Interpreter, in January 2016.
The second Dedalus release this month is a Portugese classic written in 1888 by Eça de Queirós entitled The Maias. It was translated by Margaret Jull Costa and is one of the nine novels by Queiróz published by Dedalus. The piece tells a story of an aristocrat Carlos da Maia whose life is carefree and filled solely with pleasures until he meets Maria Eduarda with whom he falls in love. After that his life changes.
To sum up, as September begins and school starts, there are a few things to look forward to, be it the colourful leaves on a pavement or a new book.
It rarely happens that I let myself be drawn into a story which teeters between reality and fantasy. I think that it is extremely difficult to write a story which contains elements of fantasy and which would encourage the reader to enter a world of imagination rather than make him or her laugh at the improbable inventions of the author. But recently I read a novel which, being highly improbable, was nothing but charming and gripping and it reminded me of fairy tales which we are told as children. Indeed, I thought that the novel is a fairy tale for grown ups.
The novel which I am talking about is Andrew Crumey’s Pfitz, released by Dedalus in 1995. It opens with an introduction of a Prince who wishes to be remembered as a creator of fantastic cities. As his beloved dies, he devotes all of his energy to the task he has appointed himself. The city is to be, however, a city which consists only on a map and it is only the first idea that the Prince has. There are more which are just as imaginative and which introduce another set of possibilities.
The resemblance with fairy tales is clear as the reader is introduced to a Prince, who is one of the most popular fairy tales characters. As for the place and time, we cannot place the story at a specific time or location as we are only vaguely informed that the Prince lived two centuries ago which reminds us of the ‘once upon a time’ opening sentence characteristic of tales by Perrault or Andersen.
As far as the form is concerned, Crumey used the Chinese box narration and as the first chapter ends, we meet new characters. There is an imaginative Schenck who is a cartographer and a mysterious Estrella, a biographer. Then another story-line unravels and we are introduced to the humorous adventures of Count Zelneck and his servant. There is romance and deceit. There is comedy and drama. The characters are highly identifiable and you cannot help but wish them well. From time to time I forgot that certain events take place in imaginary environment but I wanted to stay in those places for a little longer. I liked Andrew Crumey’s storytelling, his subtle merging of fantasy and reality and I liked that the plot flows smoothly. The novel has an ability to make you as impatient as you were as a child, to find out how the story ends.
Anybody who has ever written a blog, a story for a creative writing class or a letter, knows the moment when the sheet of paper is lying in front of you, the pen is in your hand and you are eager to begin. You cannot wait to read the whole piece afterwards and hear what your friends and tutor will think about it. And so you’re sitting and you’re playing with the pen, thinking about the brilliant idea you have in your head. But after the first ten minutes you realise that you have absolutely no clue what to write first and as time is passing, you are starting to sweat a bit, remembering the tutor’s words about the importance of the first sentence. How it sets the mood. How it encourages the reader to keep reading when it is ambiguous, intelligent or witty. Or all in one, preferably.
You think about Dickens’s opening line for A Tale of Two Cities and about Austen’s first sentence about the commonly acknowledged truth from Pride and Prejudice and you wait for the spark of genius. When that does not arrive, you try to remember any tips you received during class; you hope to remember something. And here it is, Hemingway’s advice to write one true sentence. That’s it. But what does true mean? True to you or to all? Is it something that you are certain of, something which is a fact? At this point you are convinced that there is not a single thing that you know for a fact except that you are not doing very well at the moment.
When I read the reviews of Memoirs of a Gnostic Dwarf I noticed that what a few critics paid special attention to was the novel’s first sentence: ‘This morning His Holiness summoned me to read to him from St Augustine, while the physician applied unguents and salves to his suppurating arse.’ They praised it and no wonder as it is truly a great opening and one which makes everybody struggling to write jealous. It is witty, provocative and throws you into a world of excess and multidimensional characters. Madsen’s first line makes you ask numerous questions – Where is it? Who’s telling the story? What will happen next? – and offers endless possibilities.
However, as I kept reading, the story was revealing even more humour and more interesting scenes and characters. I thought that although I admire Madsen’s ability to open his novel in such a powerful way, the overall opinion of the story would not be as positive as it is and the novel wouldn’t be placed on The Guardian’s list of ‘1000 Novels To Read Before You Die’ had it not been for the following sentences and chapters. In other words, it seems to me that it is the general idea for the story which makes you appreciate the piece and which makes it an excellent work. Let us all – students, bloggers and writers – forget about the perfect beginning, write whatever comes into our minds and piece it together later. Perhaps that’s how Madsen did it.
From time to time you find yourself reading a book discovered by chance. The book is in your hands and you start reading without having expectations of any sort as you know nothing about the story or the author. Some of these chance encounters vanish from your memory whereas others turn out to be pleasant surprises and you want to tell everybody about your discovery. Such was my reaction to Stefan Grabinski’s collection of short stories entitled The Dark Domain and here are a few reasons why you should read it.
Stefan Grabinski was born in 1887 in Kamionka Bużańska. He studied Polish literature at Lviv University. He is mostly known for his numerous short stories although he also wrote a few novels. As Miroslaw Lipinski, the translator of the stories, states in the introduction, Grabinski was never widely recognised in Poland as horror fiction wasn’t very popular in my country at the time. I hadn’t come across his works before. It is Grabinski’s gift for story telling and for his ability to juxtapose the mundane with the supernatural in a gentle way which makes reading him so rewarding. Although his stories bear many characteristics of both speculative and Gothic fiction, Grabinski does not frighten but instead unsettles the reader.
The collection The Dark Domain starts with a short story entitled ‘Fumes’ and from the beginning we are surrounded by powerful images of weather which set the mood of suffocation and danger as gusts of wind plough through everything in their path. In the midst of this turbulence there is a wanderer who is looking for a shelter and he finds it at a house of a peculiar host. What ensues is a story of ambiguous identities, sexuality and death. Indeed, these are the themes which permeate all Grabinski’s pieces in the collection. No wonder, as the author struggled with tuberculosis from the youngest age and witnessed the First World War. The vision of death was, therefore, present in his life and permeated his fiction to a great extent.
‘Fumes’ is the first short story of the collection which introduces us to Grabinski’s imagination and the next pieces are just as ambiguous, placing the author in the genre of Gothic as well as fantasy by which he was influenced. Like Faulkner in his ‘A Rose for Emily’ and Poe in his ‘The Fall of the House of Usher,’ the author sets his stories in realistic places and introduces supernatural phenomena within that mundane environment. Each of his stories is but a few pages long and in each of them Grabinski succeeds at depicting figures which are dead yet still alive (‘Szamota’s Mistress’), who have unusual abilities to play with elements (‘Vengeance of the Elementals’) or whose identity is questionable (‘Fumes’). There is typical for Gothic fiction atmosphere of gloom and suffocation and a few abandoned houses as well as the theme of ambiguous identity (‘Strabismus’). At the centre of each of the stories is the main – always male – protagonist, a vagabond, gravedigger or a gentleman who finds out that the boundary between reality and dream, life and death or pleasure and pain is elusive.
The multiplicity of characters and themes and the talent for telling stories are the two characteristics of Grabinski’s fiction which made me eager to read more. The collection The Dark Domain will appeal to everybody interested in the supernatural as well as Polish literature enthusiasts and for those who enjoy a gripping story which is difficult to forget after you’ve finished.
Few if any readers of The Dark Domain will disagree with Miroslaw Lipinski that Grabinski is ‘one of the great voices of the supernatural’.