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Timothy Lane’s Blog on The Dark Domain by Stefan Grabinski

‘Fumes’, the first tale in this short story collection, opens with a description of a blizzard. A young man, called Ozarski, who we are told is an engineer, has been separated from his colleagues by a snowstorm. As evening sets in, he quickens his pace in the hope of finding shelter for the night. Trundling on, he becomes tired, dispirited and acutely isolated. Following the road he has taken into a small valley he is relieved to discover a rudimentary inn, erected in complete seclusion.
The door bursts open as soon as Ozarski knocks. In front of him is a tall sturdy white-haired old man. He asks for lodging and is welcomed effusively. The welcome Ozarski receives begins to unnerve him. The old man puts his arm round Ozarski’s waist to guide him to his dinner table, insists on touching his knee when he sits, and stares at him ‘with black demonic eyes, that burn with wild lecherous fire’. Despite his age, the impression he gives is of great strength and energy. After serving his guest with bread and drink, he eventually disappears into an adjacent room, leaving Ozarski to pass judgement on what a dive he has discovered.
After a little while the door to the adjacent room squeaks open. Expecting to see the strongly built white-haired gentleman, Ozarski instead sees an attractive young woman. She goes over to a cooking pot that has been simmering away on a stove and pours out the contents into a large clay pot. She brings the Borscht over to Ozarski and as she does so, she brushes his cheek with her breasts that are partially exposed from her unbuttoned blouse. She sits down close to Ozarski and he leans over touching her breasts. Seemingly oblivious to the sexual aspect of the situation she simply stares at him while answering his questions. He at first assumes she must be the old man’s daughter, then thinks she is his mistress, but she consistently dodges his questions until she too disappears into the adjacent room.
Baffled by her conduct, Ozarski drinks yet another vodka and is on the verge of falling asleep when the old man re-appears. He has brought wine and yet again touches Ozarski in a manner that unnerves him, this time pinching his thigh. His evident anger at being touched causes the old man to retreat from him, but he still leers at him from the other side of the room. By now very angry and very drunk, Ozarski demands that the old man sends the pretty voluptuous woman back into the room and clears off to leave them in peace. He runs after the old man as he is heading next door but before he can follow him inside the young woman remerges, wearing fewer clothes and carrying baskets of bread to be put into the oven.
Ozarski becomes ever more drunk and ever more aggressive in his badgering of the young woman. After she puts the bread into the oven she promises that she will return at midnight to lie with her guest. Once more he frustratedly watches her disappear into the enjoining room. He begins to undress and with an undiminished capacity for vodka lies down on his surprisingly comfortable bed. Expecting the young woman to come back earlier than stated for the bread and wanting to be ready for her, he puts out the lamp leaving the room lit only by bright embers from the oven. His eyes trained on the red light of the oven Ozarski begins to doze.
He falls asleep and dreams of the old man and the young woman, who combine in his mind into an unsettling chimera. Upon awaking he is disturbed by a sound coming from the oven, and soot falling down the chimney. It is at first too dark for him to see much, but the clouds part sufficiently for a strip of moonlight to illuminate a little of the room. He sees naked muscular calves hanging over the stove, then watches in shock as the rest of a body emerges amidst much falling soot from the smoke-hole. Before him in the dim moonlight is a horrible old white-haired hag. But despite her evident signs of extreme age she has the supple thighs, hips and big breasts of a young woman in her prime. But it is her face that most perplexes the befuddled Ozarski, because it is so familiar.
She steps forward and her face comes more clearly into the moonlight. It dawns on Ozarski that the face is a hideous combination of both the young woman and the lecherous old innkeeper. This terrifying monstrosity walks right up to his bed, placing one leg along the edge of the bed and with the other places a toe directly over his lips, she pulls back the bedcover and begins to undress him. Undoubtedly frightened and wishing to defend himself, he finds, ‘his will fettered by the fire of her lustful eyes, he surrendered with some kind of terrible joy.’ Noticing his response to her, the creature removes her toe and lies down next to him where she begins fondling his body. They roll around on the bed, both abandoned to passion, until her embrace of his chest with her arms and his loins with her legs is so painful that he cries out for her to stop. Unable to prise himself free he reaches for a knife on the bedside table and plunges it into the flesh below the left armpit. The creature screams, part animalistic male roar and part wailing female shriek.
Relieved by the release of the crushing hold, he stumbles from the bed looking for matches to make light, the moon having passed behind clouds. Making himself a light he sees the soot and blood covering the bedsheets. Still dizzy from drink and the hag’s vice-like hold, he staggers to the window letting cold air in. He briefly loses consciousness, only to wake with a renewed memory of that awful cry. Urgently grabbing the taper he rushes to that inner room from whence each time either the old man or the young woman emerged. Standing on the threshold of the room he looks in: there on a dirty plank bed are the bodies of both the large white-haired old man and the young woman, they each have an identical stab wound beneath the left armpit.
‘Fumes’ is a great sinister short story, and a striking start to one of the few selections of Grabinski’s work available in English. Grabinski has on occasions been called the Polish Poe, or the Polish Lovecraft. Sometimes this is to give a quick sense of his English language genre relatives, but I think much of the time it is to stress the exulted company of weird fiction writers he deserves to be ranked amongst. I would demur from the comparison on one note, I could never rate Poe anywhere close to Grabinski, well, maybe in one or two pieces he almost justifies being complimented as the American Grabinski.

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Timothy Lane on Toomas Nipernaadi by August Gailit

If one was to ask an enthusiastic reader with an interest in classic European novels for a list of their favourite books, it is likely that one would hear the same names rattled off, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Flaubert, Zola, a lot of Russian and French authors, maybe the odd novel from Scandinavia or Italy. It is unlikely that many novels from the Balkans or the Baltic countries would be mentioned. For both reader and publisher alike, the question is always whether this is simply a matter of the greater cultural reach that certain languages enjoy, or whether one cultural hemisphere is indeed richer than another when it comes to that form of cultural expression.
For my own part there have been many times when I have come across a celebrated name in another literature, I have been keen to find a translation, and have been disappointed to find either no translation, or very old translations that are hard to acquire in a readable edition, reading a classic from another literary tradition in a tattered third hand copy isn’t for me. For any Dedalus reader it will of course be well known that Eca de Queiroz in English has been one of our great accomplishments, and if such a great Portuguese author can be so little known and appreciated in the English-speaking world for so long, it should tell us that great writers wait to be brought to bigger audiences.
August Gailit (1891-1960) published Toomas Nipernaadi in 1928. An important figure in Estonian Literature he was the founder of the Siuru movement, a neo-romantic movement (named after a fire-bird in Finno-Ugric Mythology) with less formalist preoccupations to the Young Estonian Movement. It is worth making clear that Estonian like Finnish is not an Indo-European language, whereas Latvian and Lithuanian are. Indeed the Estonian epic the Kalevipoeg was drawn together from Estonian folklore inspired by the way the Kalevala was created from Finnish folklore, both story sequences having many overlapping themes and figures.
It should come as little surprise to find that Toomas Nipernaadi has a strong romantic era feel to it. This is particularly the case when one contemplates the character of Toomas. He is introduced to us as a solitary raftsman haphazardly working his way down the river as Spring returns. A poor forester Kudisiim and his daughter Loki, who have a small cabin on the riverside run to help a raftsman they believe to be in danger. Instead of finding a beleaguered raftsman upset at his misfortune on the river they find a lackadaisical Toomas on the riverbank whistling and playing his zither without a care in the world. Unable to understand his lack of will to get back on the river and reach bustling rich settlements like other raftsmen who have passed by, father and daughter return to their cabin, perplexed by this strange wandering newcomer. And so it is that Toomas finds himself in the first of the little communities we see him effect.
The very next day Toomas begins to involve himself in the life of Kudisiim and his richer neighbour Habahannes. He asks many questions about Kudisiim, his home and his neighbours, wanders about the woods singing and playing his zither, whilst giving very little substantive information away about himself. As the days pass he helps to repair Kidisiim’s cottage and becomes ever more romantic in his overtures to Loki. After one of his many dream-filled speeches to her she musters courage enough to ask him to take her with him on his raft. Moll, the daughter of the richer neighbouring farmer scoffs at the credulity of Loki believing anyone would have any interest in such a simple girl as her. One would normally be inclined to think that either a romantic elopement or a tragic betrayal of innocence might unfold next in the story. Instead we have a characteristically Nipernaadi-ish conclusion.
He meets Loki at night, they board his raft and set out along the river together. Some way along the river, Toomas discovers that Moll not Loki is aboard the raft with him. Moll has scared Loki off by frightening her with tales of wicked men like Toomas, intending to take her place. Discovering the deception Toomas jumps off the raft leaving her to helplessly drift down the river. We next meet Toomas strolling chirpily down a dusty road in the wood, as though all the preceding drama had never happened and we never hear about any of the characters he met again. We simply follow Toomas into a new environment where he tells entirely new tales of his provenance and where we wander what mischief he will cause next.
At first one feels Toomas must be something of a trickster figure, a transformative presence who enters stable or rather staid communities and stirs up changes by his fancies and his provocations. After each escapade in each village Toomas sets off to somewhere new with a forgetfulness akin to Peter Pan, making himself anew for a new environment. His effect on women is particularly pronounced. He courts almost every woman he meets, flattering them with compliments and inveigling them into his extravagant imaginings. The reader can’t help but be amused by a man who is on occasion described as resembling a scarecrow, carrying on like a gangly Don Juan.
Toomas’ farfetched dreaming is notable for how many normal people are brought under its spell. At one stage he claims to be a professional fen drainer who has amassed untold riches by draining fens and discovering treasure troves. His passionate conviction draws scepticism, credulity and ridicule, but as much as one can’t help but be aware of the absurdity of the claim, one is most sympathetic to the characters who want to believe Toomas’ romantic tales.
At the end of the novel we learn the rather melancholic truth about this eccentric wanderer. As the weather is turning and winter approaches Toomas comes to a fishing village. Once again insinuating himself into a local family and making all sorts of wild promises to a young woman. A new note of strain and desperation has made its way into his behaviour, reality and its dry reason catching up with him, until one day a lady arrives at the cabin of the fisherman he has been frequenting, who reveals herself to be Inriid Nipernaadi, Toomas’ wife:
‘I’m Nipernaadi’s lawful wife, have been for the last sixteen years. Has he not told you about it? Oh yes, I know him; when he goes on his summer travels, he’s a workman, farmer, tailor, or a chimney sweep, if you please. Then he denies his real profession and family, lives like a bird on a branch. This is what he’s like, I’m used to his ways and peculiarites. Come spring he disappears from me and his friends and then there’s no use looking for him.’
Inevitably one finds oneself comparing Toomas’ Nipernaadi to Don Quixote. But whereas the latter wakes from his delusions to a complete sense of his tragic absurdity, we can’t help but reread Toomas’ earlier attics and see in them the self-aware attempts of a romantic man to embellish with magic and adventure an existence that feels too mean and prosaic. When his wife appears to bring him home like some indulgent maternal figure, he peevishly insists, ‘the summer belongs to me’, it is not winter yet, he does not have to go home to reality quite yet.
The very best books, however much one might focus on form, style and influence, make some claim on us through our feelings, and Toomas Nipernaadi’s great appeal is just what a sympathetic figure he is, and how much time one would have for him if he turned up in the summer months with ambitious fen-draining and treasure finding plans.

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Timothy Lane on Drifting (À vau-l’eau) by J.-K. Huysman

A brief description of Drifting’s plot could easily lead one to think that is it a short minor work, only worth the time of academics and completists. This would be a mistake, as this little book creates a vein of characteristic Huysmans black comedy. I would go as far as to place it amongst my favourite of his works. It is the last piece that Huysmans wrote in his first period of major prose writing, defined by a more naturalistic approach. It was followed by his most famous and successful novel À rebours, as such it is hard not to make comparisons between the two and see foreshadowings of À rebours’ radical departures from naturalism.

Jean Folantin is a middle aged middling clerk working for the Ministry of the Interior in Paris. Although occupying an unexceptional position in the Civil Service, it is certainly a major improvement on the poverty of his ancestors. Despite some intelligence, industry and ambition, Folantin quickly learns that merit has little to offer one in procuring advancement in the Ministry, the right connections are indispensible if one wishes to move up.

His career stasis is complemented by a dissatisfactory Bachelordom. A short-lived period in his youth of visiting the very cheapest prostitutes with his limited funds, is followed by a disappointed attempt to build a more lasting relationship with a young working girl. This relationship ends with her absconding and leaving him with an unspecified venereal disease. Lacking the charm or social graces to woo a woman and lacking the funds sufficient to keep a mistress, Folantin comes to accept a dull loneliness in addition to his dull career.

It is at this stage in his life that we meet Folantin as he is in the process of ordering cheese at the end of his meal. Amidst a table of empty wine bottles and congealed leftovers Folantin picks at a Roquefort that was predictably awful. As he walks home his thoughts are anxiously preoccupied with whether on this cold evening there will be a warm fire waiting for him. Much to his chagrin he comes home to a freezing apartment and in between grumblings at the difficulty of finding reliable housekeepers, he begins to review the terrible day he has had at work and the awful meal after. Falling into a deep gloom he begins to, “review his forty-year way of the cross, stopping in despair at each station.”

Folantin is on a quest. He would like to find a reasonably priced restaurant where he can enjoy a good meal, or even just a fairly good meal. Every evening after work he debates with himself whether to return to the below average to poor restaurants he knows are consistent in their mediocrity, or to be more adventurous and risk the truly awful and inedible, in the dim hope of the enjoyable. Every available type of restaurant he has tried in every part of Paris he has frequented, has sufficient drawbacks to make his choice of restaurant utterly hopeless. In a rare sociable mood, he dines with a friend, the experience cures him of his desire for sociable dining.

Folantin’s past is never divulged but in one clear passage of biography, we get snippets of his life between his wretched meals, indeed his quest for a decent meal matters significantly more to him than anything else in his life. An edible meal has a positively transformative effect on his outlook. On the occasions his bachelordom particularly needles him, it is the vision of a woman to make decent home cooked food that especially taunts him. Maupassant, praising the book, described it as a ‘Ulysses of the eatery’. But while Homer allows Odysseus to see his family and his native Ithaca again, Huysmans has Folantin dolefully paraphrasing Schopenhauer after a depressing tryst with a prostitute.

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Timothy Lane on Marthe by J.K Huysmans

Familiarity with Huysmans in the English-speaking world is usually limited to but one book, À rebours. A quick look through the catalogues of publishers of classics in translation reveals numerous editions of this one text, whilst the rest of Huysmans’ oeuvre is the purview of Dedalus. One might go even further in saying that Huysmans is often mainly known through his association with Oscar Wilde; À rebours is usually assumed to be the ‘poisonous French book’ Dorian Gray is so attached to, and during Wilde’s trials, the prosecutor Edward Carson referred to À rebours in his cross-examination as a corrupting ‘sodomitical’ book.
But the quality and variety of Huysmans books entitle him to much more than being remembered in passing, or being remembered for one book. À Rebours marked a very significant shift in his writing away from the more naturalist inclinations of his earlier novels. In these earlier novels we read an author capable of creating arresting novels rooted in observation and experience. There is the novel Marthe about a young woman who succumbs to prostitution, the novel Les Sœurs Vatard about working class sisters who work at a book-bindery, a collection of short prose pieces, Parisian Sketches, and the short novel À vau-l’eau, about a lowly clerk’s quest to get a half decent meal in Paris.
Marthe was Huysmans very first novel. It depicts sympathetically but without naiveté the life of a poor pretty young woman and her fruitless attempts to escape the ‘venial mire’. Her father, a poor artist, dies when she is a child, her mother, a worker in artificial pearls, dies when she is fifteen. Marthe, working in artificial pearls like her mother, is left exhausted or ill by this meagre paying repetitive job. The sole family link she has is her mother’s brother, whose simple pauper’s pleasures exasperate her longing for something better, something more prosperous and exciting.
Huysmans offers a none too flattering portrait of the women who make up Marthe’s environment: ‘A girl is lost once she starts mixing with other girls; the conversation of schoolboys is as nothing compared to that of working girls; a workshop is a touchstone for virtue, you rarely come across gold there, but brass abounds. A young girl doesn’t ‘fall’, as the novelists put it, from love or being carried away by her senses, but mostly from vanity – and a little bit of curiosity’. Listening to the stories told by her workmates of their dalliances with men, she longs for something of their fun and excitement.
Soon Marthe takes up with a rich older man. She regrets her liaison with ‘the old letch who bought her’ and takes up instead with a younger man who she finds too soppy and weak. Another lover abandons her while she is ill, her misfortune is further compounded by the doctor telling her she can no longer continue with her pearl-blowing job. This misery, made more oppressive by the memory of the good fortune she had tasted with her first lover, drives her to seek new ways to support herself and eventually into the trade that she never manages to escape.
The lowest point in her life though is the short period of time she spends in a brothel. Broken down further and further by poverty, sleeping in abandoned squalid dives, losing a lover and a baby, the brothel awaits like the abyss. Later on when she has the good fortune to be taken on at a music hall and the director of her theatre company has her name removed from the books of the Prefecture of Police, her time at the brothel haunts her like one of the fates, as though her escape can only be temporary.
Perhaps the strongest impression the novel gives is the complete lack of opportunity even for a spirited poor woman like Marthe to have any life besides one of grinding ‘honourable’ poverty, or to take the plunge and commit to being the sort of woman who must play men for her advantage. The former life brings with it the sort of mental dullness and dehumanisation that working like a machine must naturally produce, whereas the latter life ensures that Marthe is forever branded as ‘that sort of woman’, the sort you cannot and should not love. One comes away feeling that only sheer selfish will and good luck can ensure one rises out of such poverty, and Marthe’s likeable and praiseworthy traits will only make her a more tragic victim.

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Alphonse Daudet’s Sappho by Timothy Lane

Alphonse Daudet (1840-97) is chiefly remembered today for his collection of short stories Lettres de Mon Moulin, ‘Letters from My Windmill’, winsome bucolic pieces set in Provence. He occupies a place in French culture with Marcel Pagnol, similar to the place occupied in English Literature by Laurie Lee and Flora Thompson. However a quite different side to Daudet was introduced to English readers by Julian Barnes in his 2002 translation of La Doulou ‘In the Land of Pain’, a non-fiction account of his long drawn out suffering with syphilis, a disease he contracted from a lifetime of louche pursuits. In a series of notes he relates the various drugs he took to combat the pain, the effect his pain had on his friendships and the time he spent in sanatoriums.
Sappho acts as something of a bridge between these two very different seeming figures. At the beginning of the novel we are introduced to Jean Gaussin, a promising but somewhat naive young man from Provence studying for the Consular Service in Paris. Attending a fancy dress party hosted by a wealthy engineer who enjoys supporting the arts, he meets a mysterious and alluring woman. He takes her back to his student lodgings and with foolhardy bravado insists on carrying her up four flights of stairs to his rooms. So begins his relationship with Fanny Legrand, an older, more experienced woman, who has had numerous affairs with many of the most fashionable Parisian artists and writers.
What begins as a fling Jean has no intention of allowing to develop, quickly becomes a relationship he has little control over. Fanny’s artfulness, coquetry, charm, attractiveness and devotion insinuate her into his life. Even when he witnesses the malicious and foul-mouthed way she humiliates a former lover, who begs for her to listen to him in his desperation, he cannot manage to break off with her. During a bout of illness following an exam, Fanny ministers to him in such a way as to remind him of his beloved Aunt Divonne in Provence. Unbeknownst to Jean until his recovery, Fanny has given up her home and maid to look after him; partly due to her devotion, partly due to an unwillingness to see her on the street, Jean agrees to them living together.
One of the central contrasts of the novel is between the old fashioned chivalric world that Jean comes from and frequently thinks back to in Provence, and the modish world of Parisian libertines that has been the backdrop to Fanny’s many previous amours. Jean is clearly out of his depth, not simply with Fanny, but when he encounters her previous lovers and artist-friends. Jean has some familiarity with the world of decadents, as one of his own uncles has frequently disgraced the family with his gambling and visits to the Paris brothels. But the chivalry of the south affords some latitude to the waywardness of a spoiled man of the gentry, women however, especially of more lowly social standing, are not viewed with any such indulgence.
And Jean is particularly obsessive about her past relationships. His lust, his infatuation, his jealousy, but also something of his pride about how desired she has been are most perfectly summed up in the sculpture of Fanny by the sculptor Caoudal, exotically dubbed Sappho by her old lovers. She has been adored by these famous writers he has read and admired, but she has also been possessed by them, and even the false catharsis of burning her old love letters from them, expecting them as a sacrifice from her, does little to diminish his rapacious jealousy.
One does not doubt the sincerity of Fanny’s affection for Jean, but one is tempted to think that she views their relationship as a performance. Her role as caring and obliging domestic goddess is dispensed with or renewed, depending on whether she feels Jean is tiring of her or is freshly infatuated. Moving from one lover to the next is like starring in one play before taking up the lead role in another, her commitment and passion is not to be doubted, but neither is it to be doubted that the show must cease at some point. But as cynical as one is inclined to be about her, Daudet very poignantly reveals at the end a woman who tires of giving more than she is given, of being the one lover and not the loved.

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The Golem of Gustav Meyrink by Timothy Lane

I occasionally find myself writing down the impression I have of a book before reading it. This might sound rather odd, but there have been times when I find myself a hundred pages through a novel and I find myself appraising the book, not on its merits, but on how it compares with an impression I wasn’t aware I had formulated before reading the book. This impression can stem from a blurb, hearing other people talking about the book, perhaps a cover, or the title. A title such as Gormenghast for example conjures up a great deal before one has even started on the first chapter.
My expectation of the book was no doubt strongly influenced by the cover image, a still taken from Paul Wegener’s 1920 black and white silent film. An image I can recall seeing since I was very small on an earlier edition of the book. The image shows an utterly chilling, eerily inhuman face gazing out from the cover towards something beneath him. It was only on watching the film that I realised this is a still of the spirit Astaroth whom Rabbi Loew summons to help him fashion a Golem, the Golem himself appears comparatively comical in the film. For a good two decades therefore I had conceived a view of the Golem as a dark figure residing in the shadows looking down on some poor soul with infernal malevolence.
I also realise that I expected Meyrink’s novel to revolve around the Golem as an antagonist, or as some sort of Lovecraftian monster. Whereas the Golem appears very rarely in the novel and on the few occasions he does appear, he fills people with a paralysing fear, the sense that he is a harbinger of something truly awful that is to occur in the ghetto, a manifestation of unconscious fears and neurosis, and most disturbingly of all that he is in some sense a part of the person who sees him. One character who saw him face to face is described as saying: “She used to say she was firmly convinced that it could only have been her own soul that had left her body for a moment and confronted her for a brief second with the features of an alien creature. In spite of the terrible dread with which she was seized, she said she was never in the slightest doubt that the other could only be part of her inmost self.”
The novel has a very unusual and unsettling beginning. The narrator watches the moonlight shining on the foot of his bed, he is in a reverie that is not quite awake and not quite asleep. He fantasises many strange and confusing events: walking in a dried up river bed, searching at the behest of an obstinate voice for a stone like a lump of fat. On waking from his trance the narrator feels restless, even that his senses are detached from his body. As he attempts to turn his thoughts away from this sense of dislocation, he finds himself standing in a gloomy courtyard looking through an archway at a Jewish junk dealer. He becomes aware he has been living in this neighbourhood for a long time.
We learn in the course of the book that the narrator has entered into the consciousness in some way of Athanasius Pernath, and experiences the life that man led thirty years before. In a series of unsettling and hallucinatory encounters, we meet and observe the neighbours and acquaintances of Pernath in the ghetto. There is Wassertraum the junk dealer, who despite his outward show of poverty, maybe very rich, and who is rumoured to be thirsting for vengeance, his physician son having been driven to suicide; Innocence Charousek the destitute medical student who claims to have discovered Wassertraum’s son was lying to his patients about the gravity of their illnesses only the better to extort money from them; Dr Savioli, a wealthy man who uses the ghetto for secretive trysts with married women; Rosina the underage red haired prostitute; and Shemejah Hillel and his daughter Miriam, a humbly religious pair whose home is Pernath’s sole refuge in the ghetto.
The narrative is a kind of phantasmagoria, as one would expect from the unusual way narrator and protagonist come together. At times one feels the characters are real flesh and blood people, at other times they feel like the outgrowth of grotesque anti-semitic stereotypes fashioned by centuries of paranoia and subjugation, even Hillel and his daughter can feel like equally unreal cyphers of Jewish sanctity. It is a testimony to the depth of Meyrink’s writing that so many layers are at work in every scene. There is something really quite disturbing about the descriptions of the Prague ghetto, almost as though the ghetto is in a manner alive, and the nature of that life is the total of all the rotten, miserable, hateful and lost people who prey on one another there. On the few occasions the Golem does appear he feels like the spirit of the ghetto rather than it’s tormentor or protector.

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Robert Irwin reveals the secrets of Wonders Will Never Cease to Emma Quick

What inspired you to write about the War of Roses?
I have loved the late Middle Ages since childhood – the world conjured up by Malory in the Morte d’Arthurand later by Huizinga in the Waning of the Middle Agesand in T.H. White’s tetralogy the Once and Future King. I love the colour, flamboyance and ritualised violence: heraldry, falconry, jousting and so on.
I really didn’t know anything about this period of time before reading your book, but it was a nice surprise to find King Arthur folklore scattered through your book (ones I wasn’t familiar with). Why did you decide to include these stories?
In the fifteenth century there really was a cult of Arthur and the Round Table for purposes of royal propaganda. And, of course, this was subject matter for Malory’s great epic romance in which, perhaps, bloody feuds and slaughters of the Wars of the Roses were turned into something much more noble and romantic. Looking at the question from another point of view, I am a novelist and a novelist must be interested in storytelling. I wanted to tackle the questions raised by storytelling head on: storytelling as lying propaganda, how do people respond to stories? do bad people listening to stories nevertheless identify with the heroic goodies? what were the tropes and cliches of medieval romances? storytelling as a preparation for death, and so on. Malory’s stories are marvellous in both senses of the word. He was a good writer who celebrated virtue, yet also a bad man.

What was it about Anthony that made you write the book from his point of view?
Anthony Woodville seemed to me to be a gift for any writer looking for a protagonist: the brother of the Queen, a leading protagonist in the Wars of the Roses, a champion jouster and a man of high culture and one of the first patrons of print technology.

I read that you taught medieval history, what sort of research was involved in writing this book?
My background as a former university lecturer in medieval history was not as much use as one might imagine, since I only taught European medieval history and covered such boring topics as Capetian fiscal policy, the Investiture Contest between the Hohenstaufen and the Papacy and the Filioque controversy. But I did accumulate a lot of books on medieval history and eventually researched the Wars of the Roses from a standing start. I think the preliminary research must be the most pleasurable part of doing a novel. I research for inspiration rather than strict factual accuracy.

I loved the subtle magic that creeped into the book, how did you decide where to add it? What inspired Anthony’s resurrection? And where did the idea for the Talking Head come from?
I did not actually make up Anthony’s resurrection. It really was reported after Towton that he had been killed and only later was he found to be alive. His mother, Jacquetta, really did have a reputation as a witch and so it seemed a reasonable possibility that she had given him him a life-preserving amulet. Some of the other magic comes from Malory or from English folklore, but quite a lot comes from medieval Arab occultism (on which I am an expert). For example the spell for the Talking Head comes from a medieval Arabic manual of sorcery the Ghayat al-Hakim, later translated into Latin as Picatrix.

After finishing your book, I went online to read more about the war and the historical figures ( I waited until I finished because I didn’t want any spoilers), and I read about the mystery behind Elizabeth and Edward’s children’s deaths, and that Jacquetta and Richard had 14 children. Were there parts of the history that you had to leave out, but considered including?

Indeed the main thing I cut out was members of the Woodville clan, some of whom were politically quite important, but there was just too many of them for a novelist to handle.

Ripley was such an interesting character to read, how did you create his elaborate story telling abilities?
Ripley really was an alchemist in the service of Edward IV and some his alchemical treatises really were disguised pieces of Yorkist propaganda. But much of Ripley’s storytelling ability comes from his skill as a plagiarist. He steals from Dante, from Julian of Norwich, from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (the finest poem in the English language) and from Malory. He boasts about his plagiarism. There was a lot of plagiarism about in the Middle Ages.

Were any of your characters made-up, or were they all based on real figures?
Almost everybody featured really existed, even Ripley, Scogin and the Coterel gang. Sergeant Raker is main exception. The combat with the Bastard of Burgundy is almost exactly as described in the chronicles.

Who was your favourite character to bring to life?
Ripley was my favourite. Apart from the real alchemist, he was based on a young man who gave me medical treatment and was always sunny, smiling and praising me for my stoicism. Besides, Ripley is an apprentice novelist.

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Dedalus Africa by Jethro Soutar

As a translator, I’ve found myself increasingly drawn to African writing. What began for practical and even opportunistic reasons – seeking works where other translators were not; attracting publishers with grant possibilities – quickly became pure interest and enthusiasm, because the books I came across were so refreshing and intriguing.

Dedalus had been publishing books under its Dedalus Africa seal sporadically: three titles, all translator-led and Lusophone. The third of them was pitched and translated by me – The Ultimate Tragedy by Abdulai Sila – and when Dedalus told me they wanted to turn the imprint into something more substantial, I volunteered to manage the list.

The ‘detective’ side of being a translator is something I’ve always loved: following leads, tracking down obscure titles, uncovering hidden gems. I got the bug when seeking a work from Equatorial Guinea for Words Without Borders. I came across By Night The Mountain Burns by Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel and had never read anything like it. And Other Stories agreed to publish it and so began my African reading odyssey. When I later became aware, via Ann Morgan’s Year of Reading the World project, that no fiction from Guinea-Bissau was available in English, I set out to right that wrong, eventually encountering Sila’s wonderful novel.

The Ultimate Tragedy has met with considerable interest, reviewers and bloggers appreciating its ‘non-conventional’ narrative and its window onto an unknown world. There is a yearning for authenticity in modern times as people wise-up to marketing trends and tire of being told what to consume. In book terms, readers have begun to seek writers from faraway places who are not influenced by publishing trends; writers who write because they have things to say and tell stories on their own terms. These are the books we want to publish at Dedalus Africa.

We will focus on translation and endeavour to bring fresh voices to English readers, ‘fresh’ in one of a number of ways: they speak of remote communities and experiences English readers know nothing about; they chronicle life in a modern, urban Africa that is generally overlooked by Western publishers drawn to clichéd notions of village tribes and wars. (That’s not to say we won’t publish books about village tribes and wars: we will, but we will seek balance.) We will encourage marginalised, suppressed and outspoken writers and we will promote work from countries and languages that have not previously had books published in English. We will concentrate our efforts on fiction, but we will be on the look out for narrative non-fiction too.

This is all easier said than done, of course. It’s hard to gain such books exposure and they make unlikely bestsellers. Besides, there are additional costs to publishing in translation – rights must be bought, translators properly rewarded – and although English PEN does a brilliant job supporting literary diversity, its resources only stretch so far. So we’ll be exploring membership schemes and seeking sponsors and philanthropists.

I’m a translator of Spanish and Portuguese and I know lots of other translators of European languages, but we are mostly British or American. I don’t know many African or Africa-based translators, whether of Indo-European or mother tongue languages, but I’d like to, not only to commission translations, but for recommendations: translators make the best literary scouts.

So if you’re a translator interested in African literature, an individual or organisation able to sponsor a book, an African writer or a reader who knows a great book that simply must be translated, I’d like to hear from you.

Jethro Soutar
Editor of Dedalus Africa
dedalusafrica@gmail.com

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Edyta’s Blog : Visiting England

Visiting another country always means confronting the information and presuppositions about it that you have. I could not say what other people’s associations with England are. They may associate it with the Beatles or Mr. Bean. When I look at the postcards which are being sold in England, most of them present the Houses of Parliament with Big Ben, red buses or the Queen. Perhaps these are the elements of the English landscape that many people think of when they think of England. Aside from those elements, I have associated England with iconic bands, Shakespeare, magical imaginary lands created by such writers as J.K. Rowling, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis and with the many stories about kings and queens who ruled in the British Isles for centuries. I was curious to see what it would be like to live here and confront the image which I had.
When you are prepared to see the historic places and landmarks, you certainly do not expect to see numerous villages and open fields. But, in fact, that is what you will see as soon as you depart towards Cambridge from one of the airports. There are many small villages which surround the big cities. You will see small houses and cottages with colourful gardens and you will be surprised how loud silence can be when you are far away from the city. And even if not everyone knows how to get to a village a few miles away, most people will want to help you and the next thing you know the person you asked for direction is asking another person which bus stop is the right one for you to go to. Such kindness makes you certain that you will not get lost here.
When you finally get to a city, you see immediately that the associations with monarchs and great writers are quite right as you marvel at the buildings of Cambridge and Oxford, to provide two examples. The statue of Henry VIII is proudly looking into the distance on many of the buildings and when you open a guidebook, you will find out about the famous poets who were educated there, such as Lord Byron, Thomas Gray or Ted Hughes. You will find numerous collections of Shakespeare’s works or quotations and people who work in those cities know many stories connected with the history of the place and you never know what you are going to hear about. All of this made me think that, perhaps, there are so many historical novels, TV series and documentaries about English history and culture because it’s everywhere and people like to know more. A lot of cities are proud of their grand cathedrals, many villages are homes to old abbeys or manors. London itself is a great museum of British history and art with its architecturally diverse buildings, countless monuments of historical figures and museums which exhibit the most famous as well as the brand new pieces of art.
All in all, I found out that the image that I had in my mind and which I had acquired during my studies was quite accurate. England is rich in stories and for me it is one of its most distinct features. The point for me was to see what is different and what is exactly the same as I had imagined and I found the answers. And no, it does not rain that much.

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Edyta’s Blog: November

In Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem ‘Autumn: A Dirge’ the month of November is the first month during the course of a year that equals certain sadness which lasts until the spring. Nature is dead and the speaker wishes for the chilly and dark months to pass. Indeed, it may seem that November brings about melancholy as the air is chilly, it rains frequently and it’s dark at four o’ clock by the end of the month. My perspective on November is quite different as I pay attention to the multiplicity of colours which the falling leaves display and the beauty of the sun in the puddles on the pavement.
Having reminded all of us about the landscape which will surround us this month, I would like to mention two major works of fiction which Dedalus will publish in November. The first is Robert Irwin’s ‘Wonders Will Never Cease.’ It is his seventh novel. His first novel, The Arabian Nightmare, published in Dedalus’ first list in 1983, became one of Dedalus’ most successful books. Irwin’s novel is set in fifteenth century England during the War of the Roses. It combines historical events with the fantastical as it tells the story of Anthony Woodville, Lord Scales who is slain at the battle of Towton only to be resurrected as Hell is full owing to the carnage caused by the War of the Roses. For many it will read like The Games of Thrones but with real history. On November 3rd Robert Irwin will be talking about ‘Wonders Will Never Cease’ in the London Review Bookshop with the Guardian critic Nick Lezard.
The second novel, ‘The Maias’ tells the story of Carlos de Maia, an aristocrat whose life changes dramatically after he meets and falls in love with Maria Eduarda. The novel, written in 1888 by Eça de Queiróz, who is generally regarded as Portuga’s greatest novelist, concentrates on relationships within society. Dedalus has published nine novels by Queiróz in new translations by Margaret Jull Costa and in February will publish the tenth, ‘The Illustrious House of Ramires’. Its publication is the final instalment of a project began in 1992 to translate all the major work by Eça de Queiróz English.
November may be dark and rainy but for Dedalus it will be an interesting month.

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