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.
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.
Although it is in September when the autumn starts, it is not until October that you really feel it begin. Last month it was still warm and the trees were only beginning to lose their leaves. October brings about bigger changes. The trees are almost bare, their brown leaves are covering the pavement and chestnuts are scattered about. And as you see the sun setting around seven o’clock, you feel that summer is over and you get a bit melancholic and regret its passing. Indeed, the transition from summer to autumn which appears with October affects everyone, we all have the realisation that something has changed. This ‘change’ is reflected in poetry as many poets have produced poems about autumn as well as the month of October. Some, like John Clare and Robert Frost, pondered on what this month looks like, others, like Dylan Thomas and Christina Rossetti, used October’s altering nature to write about life-changing situations. It struck me how many works are devoted to the season that we have welcomed in a few weeks ago, such as John Clare’s ‘October’.
John Clare introduces the new season as an inspiration for the poet who starts his walk in order to see all of the elements characteristic of the month. The poem can also be read as a tribute to the country life as the speaker mentions the milk maid, cutting hay and cattle. The countryside is where he is observing the shift of seasons. To my mind, Clare depicts October as a beautiful month. When we think about the last few months of the year, we think of the short days and cold and unpleasant weather which makes us want to stay at home and ushers in melancholy. The speaker in the poem, however, focuses on the beauty of autumn and on the work that is being done in the country at that time of year. Indeed, at the beginning of the poem he says that although the summer is over, there are wonderful things which the poet wishes to marvel at and half way through the poem he repeats that what he sees gives him pleasure.
By the end of October Dedalus will have in print, Robert Irwin’s ‘Wonders Will Never Cease’ and Octave Mirbeau’s ‘The Diary of a Chambermaid.’ The former novel is a new title and it will appeal to fans of both historical fiction and fantasy. It is a story set in the fifteenth century during the Wars of the Roses. It follows the character of Anthony Woodville who, having been resurrected, comes across a series of peculiar challenges. The novel teeters between fantasy and reality, the elements of the supernatural intermingle with the true events of the past. It is like the Game of Thrones with real history. The latter novel, ‘The Diary of a Chambermaid’ is a story about a girl named Celestine who, having been corrupted by men, begins to live her life in a different way, far from innocence or kindness. The novel is set in Paris of the turn of the twentieth century and provides a background for the city’s life of the time. Dedalus first published the novel in 1991 as one of the first titles in the Decadence from Dedalus Series.This October it makes a welcome return.
If you have just discovered Dedalus and you are browsing for the first time through the sections on this website, you are probably wondering what the books which represent the Dedalus genre of distorted reality, where the bizarre and the grotesque combine, are about. What is bizarre for Dedalus and what happens in these bizarre books?
I have written for this blog about a few such books: Stefan Grabinski’s ‘The Dark Domain,’ Andrew Crumey’s ‘Pfitz’ and David Madsen’s ‘Memoirs of a Gnostic Dwarf’. All have unusual characters and no shortage of bizarre events and merge a recognisable reality with a fantasy world. Grabinski veers between horror and realism and gives us grotesque images of death and destruction. Crumey creates warm and memorable characters who we empathise with even though they are pawns in the author’s Chinese box narrative. Madsen is the supreme storyteller and the reader cannot help but keep reading despite the outlandish and grotesque events and the large dollops of excess. These authors have almost nothing in common except for a love of the bizarre and the unusual and the way they challenge readers to jettison their preconceptions and leave the mundane world for the baroque splendours of the imagination
There is yet another story which, to my mind, defines Dedalus’s genre, Herbert Rosendorfer’s ‘Stephanie,’ published by Dedalus in 1995. It is a very unusual story. The first two sentences set the tone:
”An hour ago I came back from my brother-in-law’s funeral. I have to admit that I never liked him.”
From that moment I felt sure that this would not be a straightforward narrative but a novel full of surprises. And I was right. The narrator is recounting a story about his sister, Stephanie, who was having strange dreams as if she were not dreaming but living another life. The siblings start to search for information about the few things that Stephanie is able to recognise and that is when the story gets increasingly odd. Stephanie is living in the twentieth century but we are transported two hundred years back in time as well. There is a question of identity as well as elements of fantasy. The novel is written in a realist mode although the subject matter is both fantastic and bizarre. It is a gripping and unpredictable narrative which, like other Dedalus titles, challenges your usual reasoning.
I devoted my last entry to the novel written by Hugh Lupton, ‘The Ballad of John Clare.’ The novel brought alive for me John Clare and the world in which he lived and made me want to know more about him, his poetry and of the author of ‘The Ballad of John Clare’, Hugh Lupton, an oral storyteller. I had not been aware that oral storytelling continues in the UK and that there are performers like Hugh Lupton who do this for a living.
A few words first about Hugh Lupton’s interest in John Clare and his work. In the author’s note for ‘The Ballad of John Clare’ it was the need to depict the emotions which permeated Clare’s early years as well as the language which the poet knew that were the most important elements for Lupton. On Hugh Lupton’s website one can listen to his reading of one of Clare’s poems as well as to Lupton’s own poem about the poet.They capture the reader’s imagination. Hugh Lupton deserves great credit for his efforts to popularise the poetry of John Clare and have him seen as one of the major poets of his time.
What I have found particularly interesting about Hugh Lupton are his performances of classic stories which we all recognise. For example, he has been performing The Iliad, The Odyssey, as well as stories based on the legends of Robin Hood and the Rood. I haven’t had the pleasure of hearing Hugh Lupton’s perform live but having listened to the recordings on his website I recommend everyone to do the same. Hugh Lupton’s voice grabs your attention, before his imagination engages you in the narrative and let you share the excitement of an enthralling world. It seems as if the story you are being told is the only thing that you need to hear, as if it was the latest news which will will keep you safe, inform you and give you comfort.
Many of the stories Hugh Lupton performs end up as books for children, ‘The Ballad of John Clare’ is his only adult novel.
It seems to me that the oral storytelling may be a form which a lot of us have forgotten about but which speaks to everyone because it expands one’s imagination and reminds us of the first stories we have heard as children before we could read. Oral storytelling transports us into a different world and leaves us mesmerised. All it takes is a poem, a story, one’s imagination and an audience which is eager to listen.
When you think of Victorian poets whom you’ve heard of and whose work is familiar to you, the odds are that those poets will be, for instance, Robert Browning, Alfred Lord Tennyson or Christina Rossetti. But there was also a poet at the time who’s been gaining recognition after his lifetime and who had produced a significant amount of poetry. His name is John Clare.
As I discovered Clare a few years ago, I was surprised that a figure that prolific is so little known. When I say little, I mean that every literature enthusiast knows Keats and Coleridge, few, however, have heard of Clare. Neither had I. When I came across his poem ‘I Am!’ I was smitten with the author’s sensitivity and I remembered his name.
Recently I had a chance to read ‘The Ballad of John Clare’ written by Hugh Lupton and published by Dedalus in 2010 and I was interested to see the author’s take on the life of John Clare. It sometimes happens that a famous artist’s life and gift are dramatised and given an atmosphere of mystery. Consequently, I anticipated a novel which would do exactly that – depict an unhappy prodigy whose only comfort in life was his own art. But I was pleasantly surprised when I started reading.
In his novel Lupton introduces us to the world which John Clare was familiar with and which shaped him as a person and as a poet. When you read Clare’s poems, you notice that there are two main concerns. The first is the country, its nature and customs and the second is the solitary individual who craves for love and tries to make peace with himself. Lupton depicts these concerns by a detailed portrayal of the country life and descriptions of the character of John Clare. Indeed, the chapters in the novel are divided in such a way that each one is a name of a custom or a season such as Sheepshearing and Christmas. The novel starts with the Rogation Sunday during which the village comes together and in those circumstances the reader meets the characters for the first time. As far as the character of the poet is concerned, we learn: ‘He is bookish and solitary and cannot seem to set his hand to any trade.’ Also his posture stands out as he is ‘some five feet tall from head to foot.’
What is important is that Lupton does not focus on the poet but on the man. Also, the novel depicts the figure of the poet during his early years of his life when he was turning from a young boy to an adult. Consequently, it is for the reader to decide in what way Clare’s environment influenced him and how his experiences seeped into his poetry.
‘The Ballad of John Clare’ is an interesting read because of the soulful images that the author provides, such as the descriptions of nature or the scene of Clare’s first kiss. The novel is a tribute to John Clare as it brings the reader closer to the poet’s beloved environment. More than that, one sympathises with the figure of the poet as he is not depicted as a prodigy but as a man whose concerns are the same as ours.
As I was reading The Dedalus Book of Lithuanian Literature, I noticed that there are two features which many of the stories have in common and I was a little bit surprised by what they were, having read the Introduction in which its author emphasizes the importance of historical events that influenced Lithuanian literature. The common themes which stand out for me are the importance of nature and the emphasis on an individual’s experience. The three stories which I would like to discuss to illustrate this are Antanas Vaičiulaitis’s ‘The Light of Your Face,’ Romualdas Lankauskas’s ‘No One’s to Blame’ and Juozas Aputis’s ‘A Cry in the Full Moon.’ Vaičiulaitis(1906 -1992), Aputis (1936-2010), Lankauskas (b1932) all wrote in the twentieth century.
In the first short story ‘The Light of Your Face,’ the reader is not provided with information about the setting or when the story is set. The story revolves around an old woman, Theresa. She struggles to come to terms with the hostility and contempt of the younger members of her family. It is only when she leaves the house and begins to wander in the countryside that she feels alive and at home. Nature is a source of comfort and creates a place which is familiar and welcoming, in contrast to the treatment Theresa receives from people.
In ‘No one to Blame’, the author deals with the themes of infidelity, responsibility and blame. There is an emphasis on the relationships between people and their treatment of one another. The story is written in a naturalistic mode, unlike the short story discussed earlier. Although the questions which the work poses are related to a particular situation, they are universal problems which constantly occur in our lives. As in the first story the role of nature is given an important role in a man’s life. Here, however, it does not serve as a shelter but rather an escape and a source of beauty and astonishment. As the narrator goes fishing with his friend, he ponders on how humanity is becoming more distant from nature and lacks the feeling of infinity and wonder which it provides.
In the third story, ‘A Cry in the Full Moon,’ the author introduces a figure of a hunchback and compares him to Victor Hugo’s Quasimodo. The hunchback wanders around the village and we observe through his eyes the lives of the villagers. Unable to express himself and seen as ‘different’, he is an outcast. At the same time, however, he is aware of his superiority to the others precisely because he is different. He recognises simple phenomena and reacts to them instinctively. He is an interesting character and by seeing the world through the eyes of an outcast we are forced to see reality differently and have our preconceptions challenged. You feel both sympathy and sadness for the hunchback. ‘A Cry in the Full Moon’ makes you ask questions about yourself and those who live around you.
Nature and its effect on the individual permeate the Lithuanian short stories in various guises and extents. It is what remains in my mind after reading The Dedalus Book of Lithuanian Literature.
I have always enjoyed anthologies and collections of stories and poetry because of the variety of different voices, subjects and styles. Sometimes there are stories that you knew already so you relive the emotions and landscapes that you remember and cherish, and it feels comforting to know that you have them on your shelves. But it happens almost every time that along with your favourites, there are short stories which you have not known and you are curious to read. There is also a different scenario. Namely, sometimes an anthology can serve as an introduction to a certain theme, genre or a country.
The Dedalus Book of Slovak Literature, which was an inspiration for this entry, turned out to be such an introduction for me. There is a wide range of subject matter and styles that take you into the heart of Slovakia.
The first story in the anthology is ‘Tinker’s Christmas’ written by Martin Kukučín (1860-1928), who is one of the most important Slovak authors of his period. It is a realistic portrayal of life in Slovakia in the late nineteenth century during the Hungarisation of the country. Through the eyes of Durko, the reader observes an individual’s struggles during the turbulent times before WW1. As Durko comes back home, he does not recognise the dramatic changes that have taken place and tries to make sense of the new situation. Very different is ‘Edita’s Eye’ by Gejza Vámoš (1901-1956). Aside from his literary achievements, Vámoš was a doctor and worked in China during WW11. ‘Edita’s Eye’ is a somewhat grotesque story whose narrator ponders on creation and existence. Edita is a strange character and the narrative is ambiguous so that the reader is never quite certain what the author intends so you feel you should read it again. A total change of feel and atmosphere comes with Vladimir Balla’s story ‘Pregnancy’. Born in 1967, Balla is an economist and a journalist. ‘Pregnancy’ takes place in a non-specified location or time. The characters seem to be bored with themselves as the reader first encounters them. They treat one another disrespectfully although they seem to have a close bond as well. There are sudden turns of action although they all seem absurd and we are left with the feeling of uncertainty as the story provides us with one last surprise at the end.
These three stories are my favourite ones in the anthology. The Dedalus Book of Slovak Literature is an excellent introduction to the Slovak literary world and its concerns. It was a voyage of discovery for me during which, for me, unknown writers brought alive a country I knew nothing about. I am grateful to them for giving me a glimpse of Slovak history and culture.
Wordsworth was right when he wrote that Cambridge is a ‘fairy work of earth.’ To find out what he meant by these words you need to visit the city. For me Wordsworth’s words stand for charm that the city holds. Cambridge is peaceful but also a creative place. It is in part of England’s history and its past but it also very much a city of today and the future. You will find a moment of quiet in Christ’s Pieces where you can lie down or have lunch, sitting on the grass. When you make your way to the Fitzwilliam Museum or walk along Trinity Street, you will see people drawing or playing music. The historic buildings of the University of Cambridge, which is the second oldest university in the United Kingdom, will take your breath away.
Like Wordsworth, I was struck by the beauty of King’s College Chapel when I found myself on King’s Parade, having walked through the centre. And like the poet himself, I felt myself being drawn to the place with an inexplicable force. Indeed, I sat in front of the chapel for a long time, contemplating the beautiful structure. I, like any other student of English Literature, wished to see one of England’s most beautiful architectural achievements and the university at which some of my favourite poets studied. Although you can’t visit all of the colleges’ historic buildings, you can see most of the halls and chapels and spend time in the courtyards which were walked centuries before by some of the greatest English writers, from Christopher Marlowe to Lord Byron and more recently by E.M. Forster, C.S. Lewis and Sir Salman Rushdie. Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes met in Cambridge.
King’s College chapel is, without a doubt, the most stunning place in the city. Its history is long and interesting, suffice to say that it was Henry VI who began the building of the chapel and it was finished during Henry VIII’s reign. The structure’s Gothic vaulting, stained glass windows and meticulously designed royal symbols, such as fleur de lys and portcullis will make you want to look again and again so that you walk looking up all the time. Although all of the colleges are beautiful and worth seeing, for me it is the Fitzwilliam Museum which stays in my mind because of the grandeur of its facade and the beautiful marble interior and its fine art collection.
I understand Wordsworth’s infatuation with the city, its nature and streets. As I walk through yet another passage, lane or side street I discover new places, beautiful houses, another college. Cambridge makes one want to work and explore during the day and listen to the silence which seems to hover over the university colleges in the evening as the air gets chilly and the streets are almost empty.
If you are an avid reader and read a wide range of books and different authors and read the literary magazines and the literary pages of the newspapers, you might think that your perspective on literature is vast and you know more or less what is happening in the literary world. Who won the Booker Prize, who are the big authors authors of the moment and which novels are currently being adapted into films. However most of us tend to read books from very few different countries. I certainly do and feel because of this I have been missing out on countless different perspectives.
What brought about these reflections was reading The Dedalus Book of Estonian Literature, first published in 2011. I hadn’t read any Estonian literature before and I was entranced by many stories in the book. I would like to mention three. They demonstrate how your preconceptions about countries that you no little about can be wrong and how you can be entertained and surprised by unknown authors from a small linguistic area.
The first story which I found moving was ‘Bread’ by Eduard Vilde. The author lived at the turn of the twentieth century and his stories are considered to be classics in Estonia. ‘Bread’ is a bitter and moving short story about a man’s love and devotion. In the midst of a celebration, the reader’s attention is directed towards an individual’s troubles. Vilde’s story is told in a matter-of-fact manner and does not stir up strong emotions until the last sentence when you realise the character’s feelings and the author’s power to move his readers.
I could not omit an interesting fact about the figure of Vilde. As his name, undoubtedly, reminds one of the great Irish writer Oscar Wilde, an Estonian sculptor Tiiu Kirsipuu decided to design a sculpture of the two w/vildes and since its completion in 1999 it has been located in front of Eduard Vilde café in an Estonian city of Tartu. In 2004 Estonia joined the European Union and as a way to celebrate it, a copy of Kirsipuu’s sculpture was presented to Galway in Ireland.
The second story which drew my attention is a short story by Juhan Liiv, an Estonian poet and writer of the turn of the twentieth century. His house in the province of Tartu is now a museum open to those interested in the life of the famous Estonian poet and there is the Juhan Liiv Poetry Prize awarded every year. Despite the fact that Liiv’s story ‘On Lake Peipsi’ is only five pages long, it is a successful exploration of the human mind when one is faced with danger and of what people learn from their experiences.
Last but not least, the third story from the Dedalus anthology which I would like to recommend is Anton Hansen Tammsaare’s ‘Grandfather’s Death.’ The author is yet another writer who is considered to be one of Estonia’s classic authors. Like Vilde and Liiv, Tammsaare lived at the turn of the twentieth century and was recognised not only in Estonia but also in a few other countries as some of his works were translated into, among others, Latvian and French. For a few years until his death he lived in an apartment in Kadriorg and today the place is turned into Tammsaare Museum. In his short story ‘Grandfather’s Death’ which begins with the grandfather’s somewhat comical prediction about his own death, the author explores the theme of death through the eyes of a boy and gives the reader an eerie story which, like the other stories in the anthology, will linger in the mind long after the book has been read.