Dedalus News & Blog

The writing of Beethoven’s Assassins by Andrew Crumey

Every novelist gets asked, “How long did it take to write your book?” And for many – including me – it’s always a difficult question to answer. There isn’t some particular day when I sit down at my desk, open a calfbound notebook and inscribe “Chapter 1” in neat copperplate, then start making things up. Nor do I spend months working out an entire plot in my mind before eventually switching on the computer to turn it into words. If I knew beforehand what was going to happen in my novels there would be no point writing them. I write in order to find out.
Beethoven and I go back a long way, which again is not unusual – he’s hard to avoid, whether it’s as a cartoon caricature, film soundtrack or meme. For me the Fifth Symphony might have been ELO’s cover of “Roll Over Beethoven”. My introduction to the Sixth was an advert for Tweed by Lentheric (“Everything you wear says something about the kind of woman you are.”) My working-class parents had left school at 14 and were classical music lovers only to the extent that among their pop, rock and jazz LPs were a small, seemingly random assortment of earlier hits: Strauss waltzes, The 1812 Overture, Sheherazade and so on.
We never had a dog or cat, or even anything mammalian in the council house where I grew up. Instead it was a succession of caged budgies, and then an exotic novelty – a red-cheeked cockatiel, proudly crested and with a jaunty swagger as he waddled along his perch. My wisecracking father first called him Johann, after Strauss, but that didn’t last long. Instead he became Beethoven, decades before the dog in a film. Beethoven’s regular flights around the living room were exercise for his wings and entertainment for my sister and me – until one Saturday afternoon a door was left open and he flew out of the house. Dad rushed after him, spotted him on our roof and vainly beckoned him to come down. Across the road was a parade of shops and a bus stop, whose queue watched a man standing in his small front garden and calling up to the sky: “Beethoven! Beethoven!”
Is that where Beethoven’s Assassins started? Maybe, or else a few years later, at secondary school where my English teacher was Mr McLanachan, a flamboyant figure of the kind described in those days as a “confirmed bachelor”, close to retirement age and in my eyes very old, though with a youthful impishness and an awareness of intellectual culture that made him seem to me like a living encyclopaedia. My ambition was to be the next Einstein – science was my priority. Mr McLanachan advised on the artistic appreciation necessary for any future epoch-maker’s fully rounded education. The Late Quartets, I learned, were a pinnacle of human achievement, and clearly something I ought to listen to. I started with Opus 130 – a succession of attractive tunes, to my ears. It was only the Grosse Fuge that seemed as tortuously difficult as tensor geometry.
I slowly taught myself keyboard playing – though because my parents felt about pianos the same as they did about pets, I had to start with a wheezy little three-octave electric organ. It was only when I went to university that I was able to spend hours in the music department’s practice rooms, tackling Beethoven pieces that I loved but were far too difficult.
At school I’d told Mr McLanachan I planned to be a physicist until I was thirty, then a novelist. He said there were already too many novelists in the world and I should stick to physics. Yet things really did work out as I’d predicted, if not exactly in the way I’d planned. It turned out I was not after all the next Einstein, though a research trip to Poland inspired what became my first novel, Music, in a Foreign Language, published by Dedalus in 1994. The hero, Charles King, was older than me, more successful with women, a better physicist and better pianist, fond of Beethoven and Bach. The novel, set in an alternative communist Britain, was musically inspired in its structure, drawing a parallel between the Goldberg and Diabelli Variations and the endless variations of history. The book won a prize, was translated into several languages, and set me on my way as an author, though I worked as a schoolteacher while writing my next two.
By 2004 I was a newspaper literary editor with five novels in print and a sixth – Sputnik Caledonia – under way. Beethoven was still stalking me as an idea, the classical structures of symphony and sonata still underpinned my writing aesthetic, but I hadn’t yet found a way to address Beethoven directly in fiction. I read the major biographies and came upon Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall, an orientalist who offered Beethoven some texts to set and also wrote a history (or pseudo-history) of the Ismaili sect known to the west as the Assassins. Here was the germ of an idea – a lost opera project among the many that Beethoven is known to have started then abandoned. If Beethoven’s Assassins started anywhere, it was with the title. In that case it took me about twenty years to finish it.
Beethoven’s Assassins became my main project after Sputnik Caledonia was published in 2008. I won’t try to summarise the next 10 years – so much of which I’ve forgotten – except to say that the project branched and morphed, sprouting two quite separate books – The Secret Knowledge and The Great Chain of Unbeing. In 2018 I started again on Beethoven’s Assassins, and at last felt I could really get it done, though something was still missing.
What happened next was the pandemic, horrible for everyone in different ways. In my case it was the loss of both my parents, then clearing and selling the house where I grew up. I said farewell to many things. Material objects are easy to part with – other stuff is harder. Yet quite unexpectedly it gave me the focus I needed for the novel – the core that would hold everything together and make sense of it.
If art is to be worth anything at all, it has to be a process of discovery as well as communication. What is communicated is not the discovery itself, but an invitation for others to make discoveries of their own. Really, it doesn’t matter how long it took me to write Beethoven’s Assassins – what counts for me is that I finished it. Whatever its fate, now it’s out in the world and out of my hands, I’m proud of it.

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Timothy Lane’s Blog on The Bird Master by Karin Erlandsson

At the end of The Pearl Whisperer, Miranda succeeded in finding Syrsa, but in rescuing her she unwittingly gave the Eye Stone to Oberis: the Eye Stone has the power to give to the one who finds it their hearts desire. After the cruel treatment she received at the hands of Oberis, Syrsa is reluctant to ever go pearl fishing again. Miranda returns with her to the Northern town, where Lydia a woman skilled in herbal remedies, and herself a former pearl whisperer, takes them into her home.

Syrsa enjoys helping Lydia prepare treatments for patients, whilst Miranda in a desire to be useful takes to her old occupation as a tree cutter. One day when she is out cutting with a native of the town called Erk, large birds called Dagpies attack him as he is up in the heights of a tree lopping off branches. Terrified by his screams, then more terrified by his silence, Miranda manages to cut him down from the tree when the birds retreat. After getting help from the town, Erk is taken to Lydia for treatment. It is then that Miranda reflects on the extraordinary nature of these previously harmless birds so brutally attacking a human being. Her attempts to explain what happened are met with disbelief by the people of the town, despite what are evidently claw marks on Erk’s face. Erk lives, but has to have both of his arms amputated.

The townspeople are soon shaken from their complacence, as large numbers of Dagpies begin to attack people in the streets of the town. The normal pursuits of the townspeople are frequently interrupted by the appearance of the Dagpies, who will congregate in the centre of town and perch on top of buildings, attacking any who leave their homes. Miranda suggests a plan that is eventually adopted, of using the wood they have to stake large posts in the ground, covering these over with a series of nets. The plan successfully shields the town from the birds when they next return, but has unfortunately depleted the wood supplies in a winter that is turning very cold.

Miranda takes upon herself the risk of cutting down trees now that Erk is indisposed and others are too frightened, but she is also attacked by the birds. When she wakes, she is being cared for by Lydia. She is completely incapable of moving any part of herself apart from her head and her neck, she has also been unconscious for months. In that time, the people of the town have been under siege from the birds.

Miranda faces the prospect of either prolonged or permanent paralysis. Her debilitated condition puts serious strain on her relationship with Syrsa, who has come to rely upon her as a kind of parent/older sister figure. There is also the burgeoning understanding that the behaviour of the birds is not a bizarre incomprehensible phenomenon, but the work of Oberis. Oberis is intent on becoming Queen of the realm, and to do so she drives the people of the various regions north to the town under nets, where she plans on penning them in with Dagpies, while she lays siege to the Queen’s city. Miranda faces the pressure of recovering not just to be able to live normally, but to look after Syrsa, help the townspeople, and to deal with the consequence of her efforts to save Syrsa, which meant giving Oberis the very thing she has wanted to pursue her power craving ends.

The Bird Master successfully conjures the anticlimactic nature of life after a great adventure, of trying to go back to a normal existence, only to realise the adventure has not ended, that the antagonist has not gone away, has only become stronger, and is determined to follow you to where you are comfortable, and strive to, at the least, ruin that comfort, and at worst destroy love, life and home.
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Timothy Lane’s Blog on The Pearl Whisperer by Karin Erlandsson

The Pearl Whisperer is the first book of Karin Erlandsson’s fantasy quartet ‘The Song of the Eye Stone.’ At the beginning of the novel we are introduced to Miranda. She is a pearl fisher, indeed she confidently believes, and with good reason, that she is the very best pearl fisher. It is the beginning of Summer and she is travelling south. It is the pearl fishing season and Miranda is seeking a very special pearl, the Eye Stone. A legendary pearl that will grant the person who finds it all their heart desires. The Queen of the realm has promised a great reward for the one who finds it, many have answered the call, but so far no one has been successful.

Miranda’s diving skill is especially noteworthy as she has only one arm. When she was eleven and was diving with her father, she was distracted by the beauty and variety of colours of the pearls, when a Rose shark attacked and ripped off one of her arms. Despite this impediment Miranda is a determined and skilful diver, frequently bringing back a richer haul of pearls than every other pearl fisher. These pearls are sold by the divers to merchants who transport them to the capital where they are a favourite adornment of courtiers and where they are worked into the Queen’s Avenue, a long and beautiful roadway made from pearls in place of cobblestones.

Her Father taught her to dive, but her Father like many of the adults in this world, has gone in search of the Eye Stone. For the Eye Stone does not simply promise the fulfilment of one’s heart’s desire, it curses whoever goes in search of it. First Miranda’s mother, then her father. We learn that this is a common tragedy that has befallen many families. It is on one market day when Miranda is selling pearls that she come across a tall, imperious woman with dazzling white hair who demands she find the Eye Stone for her, the woman’s name is Iberis. Unnerved as she is by Iberis, Miranda has no intention of doing anyone’s bidding, she will find the Eye Stone herself and be celebrated in the songs when she does what no one else has done.

But as skilful a diver as Miranda is, she is not the pearl whisperer of the book’s title. The ship she sails out on for her diving expeditions is owned by her friend Marko. One day he appears at the lodgings where Miranda is staying with a little girl, he informs Miranda that this is the daughter of his wife’s sister. She wants to be a pearl fisher too, she also lost her right arm to a Rose-shark, she also claims she is the best pearl fisher. Marko makes it clear that this little girl called Syrsa has no one else, and that she must at least try to teach her to dive when they next go out for pearls.

Miranda reluctantly accepts Syrsa into her lodgings, cooking porridge for her and plaiting her hair, but it is clear she is independently minded and in little mood for the endless chattering of the little girl whose voice sounds like chiming bells. She has learned from Marko that raising her hand when Syrsa is chattering away will silence her, and that this is one of the few ways to silence her endless talking.

But when they go diving together, Miranda is aghast at how poorly Syrsa dives, churning up sand from the seabed, this isn’t going to work. But Syrsa manages to find large pearls, where Miranda saw none. She even heads into a cave, even though everyone knows caves are empty of pearls, and returns dragging a satchel loaded to the brim with red pearls of all shades and sizes, how could she have known they would be there? Back on board ship, the usually taciturn Marko laughs at Miranda’s surprise, it is then Syrsa reveals that she hears the pearls. Red pearls sing, the blue pearls growl, the yellow pearls giggle, white pearls sound like a crackling fire. With Miranda’s diving ability and Syrsa’s ability to hear pearls, it seems obvious that together they will find the Eye Stone.

Returning to shore with a ship loaded to the brim with red pearls, Miranda, Marko, and Syrsa are all in high spirits. Miranda is realising what Marko had known all along, she must take Syrsa with her. As they start to unload the red pearls an incredulous voice on shore asks how they managed to find so many and such beautiful pearls. It is Iberis. As Iberis stares with her intimidating intensity at both Miranda and Syrsa, it dawns on Miranda that Iberis might be aware of Syrsa’s special gift. After selling the pearls to Iberis she decides to set sail at first light in their search for the Eye Stone.

As Miranda and Syrsa set sail over the world called simply the Queendom, we learn something of the toll that the obsession with the Eye Stone has taken on numerous families. When sailing to the forested lands in the North that is Miranda’s homeland, they come upon an orphanage/school for children abandoned by questing parents, something that Syrsa understands to well, as both her mother and father fell prey to the hunger to find the stone. The orphanage has an extensive library with numerous maps, and Miranda reads the legends of the Eye Stone and Pearl Whisperers. She also starts to think the maps indicate the Eye Stone might be in the Northern forests of her homeland, the last place anyone expected.

It is while she is poring over these maps that Iberis abducts Syrsa. And it is this event that makes it clear to Miranda how much she has changed, that Syrsa’s companionship, the ever-chattering little sister she never asked for, has begun to mean as much to her as her quest for the Eye Stone. Miranda herself comes very close to dying whilst at sea, when the wind drops and she is at the mercy of the intense heat for days, with little food and drink. She is rescued and taken to the largest town in the forests of the North, near where she grew up. She is tended back to health by a kind woman skilled in the use of herbals remedies called Lydia. She also learns that Lydia is the first known pearl whisperer described in the books on pearl-diving folklore. Lydia also knows first-hand what a cruel person Oberis is, and the danger that Syrsa is in.

When Miranda is fully restored to health she goes in search of a river in the North, convinced this is where the Eye Stone will be, convinced this is where Oberis will have taken Syrsa. By this stage in her quest Miranda is in little doubt that it is Syrsa she wants to find rather than the Eye Stone, that she misses the chiming bells that would follow her everywhere. Despite Miranda’s stoic manner and emotional reticence, she clearly misses her father, something brought home to her as she travels the forests of the North where they used to live and cut trees together.

The first story in the “Song of the Eye Stone” is a beautiful and memorable tale of unexpected self-discovery and of friendship, with a gracefully drawn fantasy world that one feels confident will become a classic of children’s literature. It is also a good example of the type of book Young Dedalus wishes to publish, an imaginative fantasy that will be a childhood favourite and inspire a lifelong love of reading.

The Pearl Whisperer will be available from Dedalus at the end of March 2022.
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Tim Lane’s Blog on Co-wives, Co-widows by Adrienne Yabouza

Lidou is by the standards of Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic, an affluent man. He is also a fortunate man, as he is married to two beautiful women whom he makes love to frequently. At the beginning of the novel he is mulling over whether he will bother to vote in the nation’s elections, both his wives have gone to queue in the intense heat so they can vote, but Lidou opts instead to read and re-read his French Real Estate Magazine. A few days later he is feeling anything but contented, he is only forty-nine and yet despite his beautiful wives he is unable to perform. He makes up his mind to procure whatever modern and traditional remedies he can find that will solve the problem. A few days later after exhausting his wives with his new found vigour, he experiences an intense debilitating pain in the chest as he reclines alone beneath a mango tree. When his wives return from mass they find their children crying over the dead body of their father.

Ndongo Passy and Grekpoubou both grieve for their dead husband. But while they and their children keen and cry, Lidou’s friend Zouaboua, who had sent him the traditional medicine moves quickly to put his body onto his 4×4, runs into the family compound while the family are mourning outside, locks all the doors to Lidou’s office and remerges to inform the co-widows that the house is closed off. Ndongo Passy understands exactly what he is trying to do and attacks him, calling him a thief. A passionate woman, she claws at his face, drawing blood, having to be pulled off by intervening neighbours.

Zouaboua takes Lidou’s body to the hospital, “he knew the code, the great poem passed down through the oral tradition, that prescribed which small note should be slipped into the pocket of which small person, and what quantity of large notes should be placed in a large envelope for a larger person.” The doctor produces what Zouaboua had wanted, a medical report attributing Lidou’s death to foul play, poisoning. Back at the compound Ndongo Passy has broken down the locked doors with an axe, destroyed Lidou’s computers, and removed all ready money, which she shares with Grekpoubou.

What follows is a tussle between the co-widows and Zouaboua for control of Lidou’s assets. Despite the popularity of the two women and right clearly being on their side, their enemy is intent on using every underhand means to get it from them. Zouaboua is frequently humiliated by Ndongo Passy and Grekpoubou, but however much he is made a fool of, there is a saddening sense of inevitability about how shameless determination will win out in a corrupt system. One also gets a sense of a culture where people simply accept corruption because it is so pervasive and so difficult to root out, it is unfortunate, but what can one do? Zouaboua has worked in government for over a decade, so has numerous connections.

The two women both have very different responses to these events, Ndongo Passy is like a tigress. To call her a feminist, or a proto-feminist figure would be to miss the point that her fighting spirit is that of a woman who loves her deceased husband, her children, and loves Grekpoubou as a dear sister, it is the natural product of her great vitality and energy, a sort of Central African Boudicca (mercifully less violent though). There is too much of a modern tendency for unbelievable strong female protagonists, works of literature and cinema that savour of wish fulfilment. These trends are so frustrating, because female characters drawn from life, with spirit, passion and complexity, will always be more interesting and more memorable than a flattering soulless perfection.

Grekpoubou by contrast has none of her friend’s indignation, but it is clear that together they have formed a bond that has outlasted their marriage to Lidou. I know very little about the realities of polygamous relationships, but it must happen frequently enough that the women involved in them come to think of their fellow wives as a cherished family member. I think this was what I found unexpectedly so warming about this novel.

The novella gives one a strong sense of a place that is unlikely to be familiar to many western readers. I knew little about the Central African Republic before reading this book, but through looking up a few words here and there I feel a curtain has been drawn back on the life and culture of the country. I know that French is the language of the old colonial power, and that Sangho is the main African language. That districts in the capital Bangui are named on how many kilometres they are from the city centre PK 5, PK 12 denoting 5 or 12 kilometres. That kangoya is Palm Wine. That CAR’s second biggest city is curiously called Bimbo.

When reading a new book from a country I know so little about I am always apprehensive I will demand a bit too much of the writer, that I want them to read my mind, and give me enough local detail and colour for me to look up unique things from that country, but without sending me to my phone to look something up every paragraph. I think Co-Wives, Co-Widows has the right balance, giving you enough detail to know this story takes place in a real somewhere that many good people are trying to make into a good home, despite the Zouabouas of this world.
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Tim Lane’s Blog for The Girl from the Sea and Other Stories by Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen

There are a number of impressive Portuguese writers that English-speaking readers are likely to be familiar with: Camoes, Eca de Queiroz, Saramago and Pessoa. Beyond these four one might encounter readers who have read Portuguese-language Brazilian writers such as Machado de Assis and Jorge Amado, but it is very unlikely if the reader in question is not a Lusophone that they will have heard of Sophia de Mello Breynor Andresen. This is a great shame that I am delighted to see Young Dedalus remedying with a beautiful collection of her fairy tales, expertly translated by Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson.

Andresen was born in Porto in 1919. Her patronymic comes from a Danish ancestor who settled in the city of her birth. From an affluent family, her father purchased the house and grounds of what is now the Porto Botanical Garden. The house and grounds proved influential on her work in which magical gardens abound. A very religious woman, she was nonetheless passionately opposed to the nominally Catholic authoritarian Salazar regime. After the 1974 Carnation Revolution she became a member of parliament for the Socialist Party. But it is of course her poetry and her story collections for children that have her assured her great reputation in Portugal.

It would be very difficult for me to get through this piece about Andresen without mentioning another author with a very similar name. And I think it is a mark of the delight and beauty of this story collection that it does not suffer comparison with the work of the famous Danish fairy-tale writer Hans Christian Andersen. Indeed, I would go as far as saying that the similarity of their names and work is the perfect way of catching hold of people’s attention and turning them onto her fairy tales.

The collection has eight stories, including her best-known longer pieces, ‘The Fairy Oriana’ and ‘The Forest’. I think one of the best ways to give a sense of Andresen’s unique talent will be to give a summary of one of my favourite stories in the collection: ‘The Bronze Boy’.

The setting is a country house and its extensive gardens. They are beautiful gardens with orchards, parkland, a hothouse, rose gardens and all sorts of flower beds. In one such flower bed are the gladioli. And it is a gladiola who is one of the central characters. Gladioli we are told are snobbish flowers. They look down their noses (or however flowers express condescension) at poppies and sunflowers, deem roses sentimental, adore tulips and despise the lily-of-the-valley.

The people of the house are having a party and the gardener is specifically instructed to pick gladioli. Our protagonist gladiola hears the beauty and fashionable status of his fellow flowers being extolled and looks forward to being picked and seeing this party. The lady of the house unfortunately has a change of heart and no more gladioli are picked. In the evening when the party is in progress, he visits an old oak that overlooks the windows of the house. He asks to watch from a high branch of the oak. As they look in through the windows and observe the people appearing on the balconies the oak talks to the gladioli about the beauty and fashion of the people. The gladiola is inspired to hold a party for the flowers.

The oak reminds him he must ask permission of the Bronze Boy first. During the day flowers cannot move and must stay in their position, but at night they can move about freely and talk. Night is also when the Bronze Boy comes to life and he is master of the garden at night. He is a statue who lives on a little island at the centre of a pond in a quiet verdant corner of the garden. The gladiola asks him if they can have a flower party. At first the Bronze Boy is unwilling, saying that if the flower had more sense and was less like the lady of the house, he would recognise the morning dew, the sunlight and the evening breezes, all these are a party. The only true parties are the simple pleasures of life. The Bronze Boy relents however when he sees just how downcast the gladiola has become. Delighted that they are going to have a party the gladiola organises a grand ball for flowers committee.

After much discussion and bickering over who is going to be on the committee and who is to be invited, the flowers and the Bronze Boy also pick the location for the ball, The Glade of Plane trees, a beautiful spot in the centre of the park surrounded by tall trees, with a small lake over at one end with a romantic pergola beside it. As Butterflies are dispatched with invitations, the flowers discuss who is to be in the orchestra, they settle on a on a motley orchestra of nightingales, cuckoos, woodpeckers, blackbirds, frogs and toads.

Having agreed location, guests and music all that is left is to decide decorations. It is decided to surround the lake with glow-worms and to put something in the empty stone vase. Much to everyone’s chagrin it is suggested to fill the vase with a decorative flower. The Bronze Boy suggests that if people put flowers in vases at their balls, the flowers should put a person in their vase for their ball. After dismissing the lady of the house as a candidate the Bronze Boy suggests putting Florinda in the vase. Florinda is the seven-year-old daughter of the house. She is adored by all of the flowers who think she is very like a flower herself, with her sunflower coloured hair, her violet eyes, her white camellia hands and her carnation red lips.

The following evening a nightingale sings at Florinda’s window and invites her to the flower’s ball. She is met by the Bronze Boy who explains that he and the flowers come to life at night. Taking her place in the vase she watches many beautiful flower-dances, in which the flowers combined to form myriad shapes and patterns. The gladiola is particularly concerned the tulip whom he admires so much has not yet arrived. When she eventually arrives, he is disappointed that she passes over him and dances with others instead. He is cheered up by the Bronze Boy and Florinda who both deem this the nicest party they have ever been to.

Suddenly all the flowers fall silent because another voice in the garden is heard, it is the voice of the cockerel. They all rush to be back in their places, soon leaving Florinda alone with the Bronze Boy. Florinda asks the Bronze Boy many questions trying to prolong her happiness, but she is so tired that she soon falls asleep. He carries her through her bedroom window and lays her on her bed. The next day Florinda can scarcely think about anything but the night-time ball. She tells her friends of what happened at school, but they only laugh at her for her dreaming. After school she goes to the Bronze Boy in the garden and talks to him, but he neither speaks nor moves. Disheartened she concludes that her friends are right and that it was simply a dream.

Many years have passed and Florinda has all but forgotten the flowers’ party. One evening her mother asks her to carry a basket of eggs to the cook’s house, who lives on the far side of the gardens. Crossing the gardens night soon falls. A beautiful moonlit May night. She remembers once again the flowers’ ball and how beautiful it was. The night itself, so beautiful and sweet smelling almost seems like a fantasy. She almost feels the flowers are coming to life again. She wanders to the little pool with the island on which the Bronze Boy stands during the day. He comes to life and asks her if she remembers him and the ball. She replies:
“’Of course, yes, now I remember everything. But I thought it was all a dream. I thought that everything I’d seen was too extraordinary to be true.’
‘Both the extraordinary and the fantastic are true. Because there are two countries, the night is one country and the day is another.’
‘What a marvellous place the world is!’ said Florinda.
And she gave her hand to the Bronze Boy and together they walked through the garden.”

It is a beautiful tale that manages to conjure memories of how vivid imagination can be for us when we are still very young. When we can imagine the flowers coming to life at night or the cutlery having parties in the kitchen when we have all gone to bed. There is also a gentle humour in such ideas as the flowers putting the little girl in the vase. It is a shame that the story is not better known as it would serve as great inspiration for musicians and animators. One can imagine a child reading the tale purely for its story full of magic and wonders while an adult will pick up a gracefully presented truth about the value of imagination, that it does not conflict with, but complements the more practical and realistic side of light, as the night complements the day.

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Timothy Lane’s Blog on Chasing the Dream by Liane de Pougy

In reading about Ancient Greece one of the more interesting classes of people to learn of, are Hetaira. They were a class of prostitute who were among the few cultured and educated women. They were not sought simply for sex, but for intellectual conversation and companionship. They were admitted to the elite male environment of the symposium (a sort of ancient Hellenic salon) and because they controlled their own finances, they often accrued great wealth. In essence that is the courtesan’s gambit, by the sacrifice of giving up traditional respectability and gaining a title of some infamy, a woman could have the chance of a freer more varied life.

Novels about courtesans or literary works featuring a courtesan plot line abound across the centuries and across cultures. The story of a woman from a poor background who takes advantage of her youth, charm and good looks, to infatuate admirers and take herself into a world of wealth, fashion and glamour, before ensuing crisis sees her relegated to obscurity or die in romantic tragedy, is a tale so familiar one can scarcely say how many books or films one has read or seen that feature the plot line.

Most of these works have been written by men and are shot through with the fascination of men for women who exist in a world that is so at odds with the received conventions of religious morality, marriage and family. This has naturally led to the courtesan being seen from the outside, from the perspective of the disapproving moralist or the fascinated admirer. Liane de Pougy is the ideal author to give one the insider’s perspective, because of her famously dramatic life.

Liane de Pougy, is the name and persona invented by the woman born Anne-Marie Chassaigne. Born in 1869 in the Pays de la Loire region of North-western France she was educated at a nunnery until the age of sixteen when she eloped with a naval officer Armand Pourpe. The marriage proved to be a toxic one, Pourpe being violent and abusive and Anne-Marie feeling herself completely unsuited for being a mother to her son. She then had an affair with an aristocrat, the Marquis de Mac mahon. After finding them in bed together, her husband shot her with his revolver injuring her in the wrist. Abandoning her husband and her son she ran away to Paris where she quickly progressed from cabaret singer and prostitute to becoming one of the periods famed Grande horizontales, a self-explanatory phrase that feels like it could be an English invented phrase, part of the Anglo-Saxon stereotyping of perceived French pretentiousness and licentiousness.

In Paris she was a famed demi-mondaine, sought after by the elite of society, both male and female. It is here that she first called herself de Pougy, borrowing the name from an aristocratic lover. Many of her most famous relationships were with woman, the most famous amongst them with American writer Natalie Clifford Barney inspiring her novel Idylle Saphique (published by Dedalus as A Woman’s Affair), a temptuous lesbian love affair. Throughout her twenties and thirties she wrote courtesan novels influenced by her first hand experiences. In 1910 she remarried to a Romanian Prince Georges Ghika, becoming Princess Ghika. After the death of her son in the First World War de Pougy’s spirit turned towards the faith of her upbringing. A chance visit to a convent dedicated to caring for disabled children inspired her to sponsor the convent with donations for the rest of her life. After her husband’s death she became a tertiary of the order of Saint Dominic. She died Sister Anne-Marie de la Penitence. From the convent to the convent by way of two marriages, and the notoriety of the sinful life.

L’insaisissable (translated by Dedalus as Chasing the Dream) is the first of her novels. It tells the story of Josiane de Valneige, a beautiful young courtesan who has left her unhappy marriage for the glamour of Paris. Seeking excitement, fulfilment and love, she takes numerous lovers from amongst the rich, influential and famous of Paris. The novel is told in the form of letters Josiane writes to a former lover who has become a fascinated and supportive confidante. Wearied by the drama of her romances she retreats to the countryside where she finally does experience the love she has longed for. A young man, naive, inexperienced, but sincere and passionate. Sadly, he dies from fever, their love never consummated. The chance of a beautiful love has been taken away. The novel ends with Josiane hopefully speculating love will again blossom in her life.

Strongly influenced by her own life and rather conventional in structure, the novel is nonetheless so appealing because she is telling the tale of her own life. One does not suspect a lurking religious moral, or that a syrupy love triumphing over all romance is going to be the finale, where a man basically rescues her (rescuing the troubled beautiful woman from prostitution she has fallen into due an abusive upbringing/relationship is more or less the Pretty Woman plot). One empathises with a search for a different sort of life, a more exciting life, and can even admire the willingness to make the courtesan’s gambit. That the life of a woman who died in 1950 and who lived in one of the most prosperous societies the world has ever seen should have found herself seeking a freer life in the same manner as an Ancient Hellenic Hetaira is for a modern reader perhaps the most remarkable and damning aspect of the novel.

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Timothy Lane’s Blog on Nobody Can Stop Don Carlo by Oliver Scherz

Young Dedalus published its first titles in March 2020. Four books, all of them translations. Just as Dedalus has developed a reputation for publishing neglected classics, great untranslated literature and highly unusual imaginative stories, Young Dedalus was established to publish the neglected classics, great untranslated literature and highly unusual, imaginative stories that the older Dedalus reader might have enjoyed when they were a child. The first four books that have been published so far are all translations, two from Portuguese, one from Spanish and one from German, continuing the tradition of Dedalus prioritising publishing European literature in English.

As is probably clear from the title of my blog it is the German novel I am going to write about. It tells the story of an eleven-year-old boy who plans on leaving home with no accompanying adult, to travel to Sicily where his Father lives and bring him back home. After an argument Carlo’s German mother threw his Sicilian Father out, and his Father returned to Italy. For five months and six days Carlo has been waiting to see his Father. “I just can’t shake off the words waiting and Papa”. Telling his Mother, he is going to stay with a friend, he takes his money roll of 210 Euros, wearing a hand me down suit and tie from his Father, and heads to the station. On the way the chubby Carlo can’t resist visiting an Italian Restauranteur called Pietro who is always happy to give his friend a few slices of Pizza.

What follows are a series of adventures in which Carlo stows away aboard a sleeper train because he does not have enough money for the journey, has his property stolen by a taxi driver in Italy, and after sneaking aboard a ferry for Sicily is blackmailed into giving up his prized signed Bochum goalkeeper’s Jersey. These experiences are interspersed with memories of his Father, who we learn is a larger than life, exciting figure to his son, but who is still irresponsible and negligent of how much his son wants and needs him.

One memory that sticks out from when his Father still lived with him in Germany, is of him going missing for three days. We are told this is not unusual, but what makes it so bad is that one of those days was Carlo’s Birthday. When his Father does appear, and after many exclamations of ‘Mio Dio!’, he tells Carlo he has not forgotten his Birthday, he had postponed it. Unable to resist his Father’s bear hugs and irrepressible laughs, Carlo asks him if he has tickets for the Bochum game today. He reassures him he has and takes him on his moped to the stadium.

His Father does not actually have tickets, but he knows a steward on the turnstiles. After telling him that his son is going to be the next Bochum keeper and that surely a fellow Italian can fail to do a countryman a good turn, his Father manages to get them in for the second half. Bochum win the game after a penalty shootout. His Father then tells him they are going to collect his present from the president. After pushing through a row of people around the president in the upper stand he strikes up a conversation with him. He quickly has him laughing, and pointing to his son tells him it is his Birthday, Carlo is allowed to see the players in the dressing room where he gets his goalkeepers shirt signed by Bochum’s penalty saving hero.

It is clearly a fairy-tale memory with an embellishment here and there, but one that clearly emphasises how much Carlo misses his father that later on he is willing to give up his prized shirt on his ambitious quest to bring his father home.
When Carlo reaches his Father’s home, his Father is delighted and passionately embraces him. He is stunned that his son has come all this way alone and endures a barrage of maternal fury over the phone. He takes his son to the market to buy as many fresh ingredients for a grand breakfast over which Carlo relays to him all his adventures. Listening wild eyed one thinks perhaps his Father is finally understanding the gap he has left in his son’s life. But later on, on the very same day when he takes Carlo to the beach for ice cream and to sunbathe, he receives a phone call. Telling Carlo it will be half an hour maximum, his son ends up waiting for him for an hour and a half. Going back to his Father’s house in a rage he sees him arguing with a woman he does not know and proceeds to shout at him for always promising things that he never delivers and for always keeping him waiting after building his hopes up.

Seeing his son so worked up clearly has an effect on Carlo’s Father. He also recognises something of himself in the impulsiveness of his adventure. There is an understated quality about this realisation that is quite disarming. Carlo’s Papa doesn’t become a model Father and when he returns to Germany with his son, he does not get back together with Carlo’s Mother. He does however make more of an effort to see his son and deliver on his promises, such as taking his son regularly to football games. Carlo’s adventure has shown him how much he has to grow up to ensure the happiness of the son he clearly loves. Considering how comfortable much of contemporary media is to talk of toxic masculinity it was heartening to read a sensitive and sympathetic story of a father and son, a story of the responsibility and importance of fathers.

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The Double Life of Daniel Glick by Maurice Caldera

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A New Beginning for Dedalus

It is hard to think of a new beginning for a publishing company founded thirty-six years ago and with its original founders still in place but that what is happening for Dedalus.
At the beginning of a new year a new publisher will be born, Young Dedalus. It begins as an imprint of the existing company but the plan is to develop as a freestanding publisher with a full range of titles designed for young readers between 9 and 13 years of age. The first 4 titles are all translations as that is what we primarily do but our intention is to expand and publish original English-language fiction and classics both in translation and written in English. We want to offer our young readers exciting, strong narratives which will take them from reading heavily illustrated books to their teenage years. Like all high-quality fiction our books will also appeal to readers of all ages.
Young Dedalus will also have its own publisher, Timothy Lane, who will develop and nurture this new imprint, as it carves out its place in the publishing world. Timothy was not born when Dedalus began but grew up with a publishing company at home and shares the enthusiasm of his parents for literature and the printed word. He is Dedalus’ Europe Editor and now has the opportunity to create a publishing company to reflect his passion for children’s fiction and build on his kaleidoscopic knowledge.
In January we begin with Nobody Can Stop Don Carlo by Oliver Scherz, translated from German by Deirdre McMahon and The Girl from the Sea and other stories by Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen, translated from Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson. A month later they will be followed by The Books that Devoured my Father by the Portuguese author Afonso Cruz and Memoirs of a Basque Cow by the Basque author Bernardo Atxaga, both translated by Margaret Jull Costa.
A great beginning for a new publishing company!

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Timothy Lane’s blog on The Illustrious House of Ramires Eca de Queiroz

A nobleman in his slippers wearing a light linen jacket over his pink cotton shirt sits in the library of his manor house, he is scratching his head with his quill looking down forlornly at the sheet of foolscap paper in front of him. His name is Goncalo Mendes Ramires, heir to the most distinguished noble family in Portugal, older than the line of the King of Portugal and Portugal itself. At a table stacked with thick volumes of genealogical history, Bluteau’s Portuguese and Latin Vocabulary and the medieval romances of Walter Scott, Goncalo is attempting to write a historical novel inspired by his glorious ancestors.

He is the last of his line, a line that includes crusaders and conquistadors, warriors who invaded Castile, a vagabond who topped a gambler’s life with the command of a pirate ship, and countless companions and confidantes of the Kings of Portugal. In more recent generations Ramires’ men had been patrons of the arts and vying for ministerial positions, Goncalo’s own father is described as ‘wearing out his shoe leather going up and down the steps of various ministries and of the Mortgage Bank’, until finally a minister had appointed him the Governor of Oliveira, not due to his talent we are told, but because that particular minister found his favourite mistress was rather keen on Goncalo’s father.

Our Goncalo in his time at university has been failing his exams but developing his literary ambitions, partly inspired by another student Castanheiro who has founded a patriotic journal with the aim of reawakening a sense of the ‘beauty, grandeur and glory of Portugal’. Submitting his first literary effort to the Patriot’s Club he is hailed by his small peer group as ‘our Walter Scott’. As he toasts his friends over glasses of wine, he announces a far more ambitious literary work, a two-part historical epic inspired by his own family lore.

After Castanheiro’s graduation the Patriot’s club dwindles, and Goncalo in grieving for his recently deceased father has lost much of his flamboyance and concern for grand political matters. Upon graduation Goncalo heads for Lisbon to settle a number of mortgages on family estates and to make the acquaintances of important political figures. Meeting Castanheiro after a long separation he finds the poetic patriot still as passionate as ever. He enquires after the mooted two- volume novel Goncalo had planned and on hearing the lack of progression, assumes his friend has lost heart. Fired afresh by this meeting Goncalo returns to his hotel and vows to return to the family homestead and accomplish something towards his literary and political ambitions, even if now he sets himself the far more manageable goal of writing a novella. Making the task far less troubling for the indolent and ease-loving side of Goncalo’s temperament an uncle had previously completed a thoroughly researched poem on the Ramires’ family. Using the poem as his reference point, he can build a literary career and bolster his political ambitions, just when a patriotic advocate from an exulted and distinguished family is most needed.

So we meet the thirty year old aristocratic bachelor trying, dawdling, failing, procrastinating and plagiarising his way towards the writing of a work that can’t possibly fulfil all his quixotic desires. Struggling to write, more indebted than his ancestors, reluctant to pursue a proper relationship with any interested women, stung by local gossips, and even facing the humiliating assaults of a fair-haired local farmer who delights in tormenting him, there is a strong sense about Goncalo’s life, about his family’s status, that the best days are in the past. When one factors in that Goncalo is in part a personification of Portugal itself, one sees that Eca de Queiroz’s sympathetic portrait of the likeable, but weak Goncalo overshadowed by a family past he can’t possibly live up to, or even keep going, is a commentary upon a country that is struggling to cope with its diminished status.

The contrast between Goncalo and the warlike ancestors who appear in his uncle’s poem and his novella could not be more striking. Aristocracy is of course a sense of distinction and greater worth predicated on descent from an exulted past ancestor. Something of its innate silliness can be gaged by considering that if many modern aristocrats could actually meet their most famous ancient ancestors, they would most likely find them uncivilised, bellicose and vulgar, little different from their underlings in terms of culture, and raised above them chiefly by might. The warriors of the medieval period would not only be radically different from their descendants, they would most likely think their descendants pitiful weaklings. Furthermore, the utterly alien nature of the past and its priorities can cause discomfort, there is a natural desire to soften the rough edges, and place the great feats of the past within a narrative framework that naturally leads to us and all we value in the present and hope to perpetuate. That people from previous generations had the same naive views of the past and the present is rarely considered.

Despite being no great intellectual Goncalo is sufficiently aware of these ironies. And part of the reason he becomes such a likeable character is that he has such straightforward desires for his life and his failings have little harmful effect on anyone but himself. He is a good friend who is well liked by his peers, he is generous and full of genuine warm feeling to those who work on his estates, he loves his sister and is upset at gossips who are saying she has been unfaithful with a man far more dashing than her husband, and he is unwilling to abandon his beliefs to achieve political advancement. He would simply like to be a worthy figure in his family line, sitting proudly in the glow of a romanticised past, in a proud and confident nation.

Of all the prolific great nineteenth century novelists none have had quite the baffling neglect in the English-speaking world as Eca de Queiroz. Perhaps his extensive stay in England as Portuguese consul and the frequent cynicism and ironic humour at the expense of his host nation may have played some part, but in all of his writings on England their runs a vein of humour and grudging appreciation – describing the country as probably the foremost thinking nation, praising the tradition of Christmas stories for children – to his observations that is far from the much stronger streak of self-depreciation that Orwell was later to remark as running through the English intellectual class. And for all his criticism he spent fifteen years in the country and wrote many of his greatest masterpieces here, including his most celebrated work, The Maias, in Bristol. Perhaps sometimes the best inspirations are also the sharpest provocations.

Whatever his writings on England, I think the best way to make the case for Queiroz is to let a contemporary of his speak for him, and who better than Emile Zola, who said ‘Queiroz is far greater than my own dear master, Flaubert.’

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