The Yellow Wall-Paper – Charlotte Perkins Gilman

The story that provides the title of this collection of three short stories is easily Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s best known work, it is beautifully written and is also a very difficult read. It deals with the descent into madness of a woman who suffered from a severe bout of postpartum psychosis, a range of mental illnesses which occur soon after childbirth. Gilman was perfectly aware of how this could be as she suffered from very bad attack of some form of postpartum psychosis after the birth of her first child so the story can be seen as semi-autobiographical. Unfortunately for Gilman this collapse of her mental health wasn’t recognised by the medical profession back in 1885 when she had her daughter and she was largely seen as simply needing to pull herself together and rest and recuperate physically after the birth, but in fact she didn’t really start to recover her mental well being until 1888 by which time she had separated from her first husband and was resting in Rhode Island with a female friend.

It was in 1890 that she wrote The Yellow Wall-Paper and the story is told first person from the point of view of the unnamed female narrator as she gradually becomes more and more obsessed with the wallpaper in the bedroom she is in. At first all seems well, her husband, who is also a doctor ‘treating’ her condition has taken a large house in the country for three months to see if the air would help her recover from the psychosis she is suffering from but slowly she reveals to the reader, if not herself, the true position she is in. The room that he puts her in is a large one in the attic that has a bed screwed to the floor and initially no other furniture so some random pieces are brought up from the rooms below. There is also a gate at the top of the stairs up to this room so initially she assumes that the room had been for the children of a previous resident but it gradually becomes clear to the reader that she is a prisoner in this room, with its terrible, faded and partly pulled off the walls wallpaper. Oh the wallpaper, the pattern is odd, not quite matching and making a satisfying design but maddeningly elusive and the missing pieces along with the faded patches make finding the pattern even more difficult. The colour is also coming away from the paper, brushing up against it leaves yellow stains on your clothing and that blurring makes it even more difficult to interpret.

The colour is hideous enough, and unreliable enough, and infuriating enough, but the pattern is torturing.

She is also told to rest after meals and not to do any work, even writing is forbidden so she hides her notes on the changes of the wallpaper that she perceives in different lighting conditions. This was also the fate of Gilman herself, a writer told not to write and this greatly prolonged her own mental collapse. Gradually, as the weeks progress, our narrator starts to see movement behind the wallpaper and is convinced that some malevolent creature is behind the paper, small at first but the creature grows as the nights pass until she sees a woman loping behind the paper and determines to release her. This has to be one of the most disturbing short stories I have ever read, you are drawn totally into this woman’s world and you can feel the paranoia rising. The Yellow Wall-Paper is rightly regarded as a classic of feminist literature and a few years later Gilman sent a copy to her own doctor to try to persuade him away from the stifling treatment she had received at his hands.

The other two stories in the book are also interesting, ‘The Rocking Chair’ is another beautifully written story where two friends take rooms in an old property having been drawn to it by the sight of a beautiful young woman rocking in a chair by the window, but all is not as it seems. The girl is almost never seen by either of the two men although one catches a glimpse of her one day but both of them are convinced that the other has been talking to her, indeed they have each seen the other standing by her at the window when approaching the house. Both are disturbed at night by the incessant rocking of the chair which is in one of their rooms but both deny having been in the chair at night. What is going on and what will be the ultimate result of their gradual loss of friendship for each other as they refuse to believe the others story of not seeing the girl?

The final story is for me the weakest of the three, ‘Old Water’ is another story of obsession this time of a young poet for the daughter of an acquaintance. The daughter is however not in the least interested in him as she likes sports and the outdoor life and his attempts to join in with her simply highlights his inadequacies in her eyes. You know it isn’t going to end well but the final twist is unexpected but strangely satisfying as a conclusion.

I hadn’t heard of Charlotte Perkins Gilman before but I’ll definitely be reading more of her work.

A Winter Book – Tove Jansson

Best known for her Moomin stories, Tove was also a highly talented artist and writer away from her children’s books. This volume is a collection of twenty short pieces originally published in Swedish between 1968 and 1998 and collected here for the first time in English in 2006 by Sort of Books.The book is split into three sections; ‘Snow’, ‘Flotsam and Jetsam’ and ‘Travelling Light’ the first two of which are re-arranged chapters from Tove’s first adult work ‘The Sculptor’s Daughter’ (Bildhuggarens dotter). This re-arrangement brings the winter themed parts together into ‘Snow’ and the summer items into ‘Flotsam and Jetsam’. ‘Travelling Light’ consists of six pieces, some of which have never been translated into English before and all of them are difficult to find in English. The book is illustrated with numerous photographs from Tove’s life including some charming ones of her as a small child. You may wonder why it is called ‘A Winter Book’ when it includes works that relate to the summer but that is to contrast with the earlier work ‘The Summer Book’ (Sommarboken) which was first published in 1972 and which was a novel rather than a compendium of short stories.

‘The Sculptor’s Daughter’ was first published in Swedish in 1968 and translated into English in 1969 and provides fictional retelling of episodes in the young Tove’s life growing up with her sculptor father and artist mother and all written from the viewpoint of the little girl she was at the time. Tove Jansson was fifty four when she wrote these tales down but she is meticulous in giving life to her younger self and continuing to see the world from the eyes of a small child, albeit one with a strong sense of adventure as illustrated by the story ‘The Boat and Me’ which recounts a journey she undertook in her first boat to head off round the group of islands where the family lived in the summer before being found and towed home by her father well after dark.

Another favourite of mine from these two sections is ‘The Iceberg’ where Tove finds an iceberg just too far off the shore for her to safely get on it and separated from the shore by some quite deep and freezing cold water. In the story she debates attempting to get on the berg and ultimately just throws her torch onto it where it nestles in an indentation exactly where she most wanted to be. The story is a tale of regret that she didn’t have the courage to attempt the jump herself and ride off on the ice to who knows where.

The story that I loved most however is from the collection of random stories in ‘Travelling Light’ and that is ‘The Squirrel’ which is taken from her second collection of short stories ‘The Listener’ (Lyssnerskan) first published in 1971 and here in a new English translation. In this story we have an old woman living on and island just as Tove Jansson and her long time partner Tuulikki “Tooti” Pietilä did but this lady is living alone. This island has no trees so she is surprised to see a squirrel one morning on the landing stage. The interplay and ultimate relationship she feels for this lost traveller over the coming winter is great fun and beautifully written, you can really feel for her as she tries to feed the animal and look after it without letting it into her home and what happens when it gets in anyway. The ultimate resolution of the story is completely unexpected and had me laughing out loud.

There are a couple of flops, particularly ‘Messages’ which frankly I didn’t get at all, but overall the book is a joy to read and a complete contrast to the Moomin tales, I’m so glad I spotted it and picked it up earlier this year.

A Tall Ship – ‘Bartimeus’

Originally published in September 1915 by a by then well known author of naval stories I was expecting tales of daring do on the high seas so was quite surprised that with the exception of the first and last stories in this collection the actual war didn’t really impinge on the stories being told. It all starts excitingly enough with the short story ‘Crab-pots’ which begins with the torpedoing of a ship and the unusual revenge that one of the sailors manages to take some time later. This sailor will become part of a recurring group through most of the other nine stories in this collection but this isn’t clear at the start as he gains the nickname Torps by story number two ‘The Drum’ which is also one of the odder tales as it has two parts with no link between them. This story starts with a couple of Cornish fishermen repairing a boat by hammering out an old boiler to make a plate to cover worn out timbers and then jumps to Torps and Margaret (who had nursed him after the sinking of his ship) on a hillside looking out to sea and not really getting anywhere as to a relationship that he clearly wants but she is not sure about.

I don’t want to work my way through all the tales but there is one which just consists of recounting the morning work of a naval captain, doing his paperwork and dealing with requests from the sailors under his command. Another has the ships officers arranging a children’s party on board which has one of the funniest lines in the entire book which takes place between two of the children on the harbour side waiting to be picked up on a small boat in what looked like choppy conditions

“My daddy’s a Captain” continued Cornelius James “and I’m never sick – Are you?”
She nodded her fair head. “Yeth” she lisped sadly.
“P’raps your daddy isn’t a Captain” conceded Cornelius James magnificently.
The maiden shook her head. “My daddy’s an Admiral” was the slightly disconcerting reply.

All in all though the book was remarkably dull and it’s no surprise to see that it and the other works by Bartimeus are long out of print. He was definitely popular in his time though but it’s hard to see why, this is the second book by him in the first 110 Penguin books a feat only matched by Agatha Christie and Andre Maurois (excluding two part books) but none of his other works have ever appeared in Penguin unlike the two other authors so it is clear he was waning in popularity even in the mid 1930’s.

As can be seen from the rear flap of the dust wrapper there are quite a lot of clues as to who the pseudonymous Bartimeus actually was. A little digging finds that the author was born Lewis Anselm da Costa Ricci in 1886; although he anglicised his name to Ritchie by deed pole in 1941. Joining the Royal Navy in 1901 he trained to become a naval officer, however while still young, he contracted Malta Fever (brucellosis); this cost him the sight of one eye and damaged the other. Unable now to pursue a career at sea, he remained in the Navy, initially in the accounting branch, but began writing stories about naval life. He finally left the Navy at the start of the Second World War retiring as captain of the Royal Yacht and became press secretary to King George VI from 1944 to 1947. He took his pen-name from the Bible, ironically hinting at his reason for leaving the career he loved by naming himself after Bartimeus, the blind beggar of Mark 10, 46-52.

The Clicking of Cuthbert – PG Wodehouse

By way of contrast to the five French works I read throughout August I have chosen the most quintessentially English of writers for the first book of this month P G Wodehouse. I should at this point make it clear that I am not a golf fan so this is a slightly odd choice of book to have on my shelves, but I am definitely a Wodehouse fan and he didn’t let me down. The ten stories collected into this book are definitely all set on the golf course but the gentle humour of Wodehouse pervades the tales not so much about golf but about relationships and especially young love. Men battle it out with clubs and balls to win the hand of the one they love, in two of the stories without the lady herself being aware she was the object of such competition. Always playing the ball where it lies or being regarded as a blackguard, see the cover illustration where Cuthbert Banks plays from the dining table of a house adjacent to the links. It should be noted that although the book is called The Clicking of Cuthbert he only appears in the first story.

Most of the stories are related in the clubhouse by The Oldest Member usually as some younger chap comes to him for advice, not necessarily on golfing matters. He will then relate a tale of some past member with a useful message for the struggling supplicant, in the case of Cuthbert Banks it was how golf finally won him the hand of the lovely Adeline Smethurst a girl who until a fateful evening at a literary soiree thought that only a renowned novelist or poet would be a suitable match. The Oldest Member tells the story to encourage a young man not to give up golf and prove that there is a use for golf.

The Folio Society edition is beautifully illustrated by Paul Cox with 41 inset black and white drawings along with a colour cover, frontispiece and end papers which illustrate the Woodhaven Golf Club where most of the stories are set, see final picture in this blog. Below is the occasion where Celia Tennant had hit her fiancee with her niblick in an attempt to stop his endless chattering on the course from the fifth story in the book, The Salvation of George Mackintosh.

One of the stories concerns the need to always retain a clear head whilst playing golf as illustrated in this quote from Ordeal by Golf.

How few men, says the Oldest Member, possess the proper golfing temperament? How few indeed, judging by the sights I see here on Saturday afternoons possess any qualification at all for golf, except a pair of baggy knickerbockers and enough money to enable them to pay for the drinks st the end of the round. The ideal golfer never loses his temper. When I played I never lost my temper. Sometimes, it is true, I may, after missing a shot, have broken my club across my knees, but I did it in a clam and judicial spirit, because the club was obviously no good and I was going to get another one anyway.

As the stories in this book date from 1919 to 1922, it was first published in book form in 1922, the club names are the traditional ones from the then almost exclusively Scottish makers. Clubs weren’t numbered until the Americans got involved in manufacturing in the 1930’s it therefore helps to know that a Brassie is a 3 wood, a Mashie a five iron, a Niblick is a nine iron and by inference a Mashie-niblick is a 7 iron. Other clubs referred to in the book are a Spoon (5 wood), a Rut niblick (wedge) and a Cleek (either a 1 or 2 iron). Bring back the old names, they give a definite beauty to the game.

In the end paper illustration Paul Cox has clearly studied the stories in the book as the holes are recognisable from the descriptions given with the various hazards such as the lake on hole 2 clearly visible.

Little Tales of Misogyny – Patricia Highsmith

After a huge book last week, Dune at 556 pages, it’s time for something a lot shorter and amazingly seventeen of Patricia Highsmith’s short stories fit into this little book of just 90 pages. Although aware of her name I have to admit that I’d never read anything by her before picking up this volume printed as part of the celebrations of the 60th anniversary of Penguin Books in 1995.

Well for such a short book the death rate was incredibly high, the main question you face when you start each short story is who is going to die and how? That Highsmith manages to keep this to herself until usually the last few lines is a tribute to her storytelling ability and the variety of the situations she places her characters in. What I must point out is that the title is somewhat misleading as both men and women come out badly throughout the book and you wouldn’t want to spend any social time with any of them. The first story has this as it’s opening line

A young man asked a father for his daughter’s hand and received it, in a box – her left hand.

The Hand by Patricia Highsmith

Having had that idea a lesser writer would have made the arrival of the hand the punchline to the tale, but no, Highsmith opens with it and then tells the story of what happened next. The book is full of twists, you can rarely guess how a story will turn out, the longest one, at ten pages, is a case in point. ‘The Breeder’ starts out as a simple tale of a newly married young couple who want children but are having problems conceiving; that it turns into a darkly comic tale and a descent into madness could not be anticipated from the homely beginning. Indeed some form of madness or at least a compulsive mania is the basis to several of the plots and Highsmith is clearly a master of the short story genre and some of these are very short. ‘The Hand’ is just two and a half pages long as is ‘The Coquette’ but both manage to tell a full story, you don’t even notice how short they are, there is just so much going on.

This taster of Highsmith has made me want to read more. Along with numerous short stories she wrote twenty two novels, the first of which, Strangers on a Train, was the basis for Alfred Hitchcock’s classic 1951 film although the adaptation strays significantly from the book. She also wrote the much better known novel ‘The Talented Mr Ripley’ and its four sequels which continue to follow the exploits of serial killer Tom Ripley, the first three of which have also been made into films.

The Golden Age – Kenneth Grahame

Originally published in 1895 by The Bodley Head without any illustrations, my copy is also published by them and is the 1928 first edition illustrated by Ernest H Shepard who is probably best known for his Winnie the Pooh drawings for A A Milne’s classic children’s works. The book is simply beautiful even before you open it with the cover silhouette and text embossed into buckram covered boards. Kenneth Grahame of course is famous for his own children’s classic ‘The Wind in the Willows’ which was published thirteen years after ‘The Golden Age’ and was converted into the play ‘Toad of Toad Hall’ by Milne in 1929. Surprisingly after such a major hit with ‘The Wind in The Willows’, and despite living for another twenty four years after that, he published no more books and ‘The Golden Age’ is the second of just four other books he wrote before ‘The Wind in the Willows’.

Kenneth Graham was born in Edinburgh in 1859 but when he was only five years old his mother died and his father, who was probably alcoholic, couldn’t look after Kenneth and his three siblings so they were sent to live with their grandmother in a small village in Berkshire. This sudden change from the centre of a Scottish city to a rural English parish had a lasting effect on Grahame and his explorations as a child of the countryside surrounding him undoubtedly led decades later to ‘The Wind in the Willows’. His earlier writings, especially ‘The Golden Age’, feature a group of children having fun growing up in just such an idyllic environment written entirely from their point of view and are clearly fictionalised versions of his own life in the mid to late 1860’s in Cookham Dean. The book is made up of seventeen short stories and a prologue which refers to the, largely distant, adults as The Olympians and the children as the Illuminati because only they could see the pirates, knights, soldiers, wild animals etc. of their playing and truly enjoy themselves.

Looking back to those days of old, ere the gate shut to behind me, I can see now that to children with a proper equipment of parents these things would have worn a different aspect. But to those whose nearest were aunts and uncles, a special attitude of mind may be allowed. They treated us, indeed, with kindness enough as to the needs of the flesh, but after that with indifference (an indifference, as I recognise, the result of a certain stupidity), and therewith the commonplace conviction that your child is merely animal. … These elders, our betters by a trick of chance, commanded no respect, but only a certain blend of envy—of their good luck—and pity—for their inability to make use of it. Indeed, it was one of the most hopeless features in their character (when we troubled ourselves to waste a thought on them: which wasn’t often) that, having absolute licence to indulge in the pleasures of life, they could get no good of it.

From the opening paragraph of The Golden Age

The stories are delightfully and really evoke a long gone period in mid-Victorian England, as well as harvest time depicted above they encounter mounted soldiers in one of the lanes all dressed up in regimental finery with red jackets and plume helmets so very different to the modern military. There are stories of Charlotte, the youngest girl, playing with her dolls and telling them off for misbehaving, the three boys are always in and out of the river or exploring the woods or generally being where and doing what they shouldn’t be, often in the company of Charlotte if not her elder sister Selina. The relatives the children were staying with were clearly quite well off, the house appears to be quite large and there are servants hence the opportunity for them to enjoy their childhood despite regular complaints about having to do schoolwork. For those wondering ‘dreeing his weird’ is a Scottish expression meaning to accept your fate, so clearly Harold had ended up with a tummy ache after all that raw turnip but had recognised that his illness was entirely his own fault so wasn’t complaining about it. None of Grahame’s actual brothers and sisters match the names of the children in the book or its sequel ‘Dream Days’ where Charlotte appears again in the short story ‘The Reluctant Dragon’ which of all of Grahame’s short stories is easily the best known although the rest of ‘Dream Days’ doesn’t really live up to this gentle fantasy.

The illustrations by Ernest H Shepherd are as charming as you would expect from this master of book illustration but for me the real joy in the book are his silhouettes, they are just so beautifully done and as can be seen above sometimes continue across a double page spread. The children are enjoying some ginger beer purchased with the reward for Edward being steadfast under the dentists attention and having a tooth removed that morning. The misunderstanding as to what corked wine meant with the subsequent worry about expanding pieces of cork being dangerous inside you is quite funny and behind Selina can be seen one of the children’s rabbits chosen as the “most self-respecting of the rabbits … let loose to grace the feast”.

The book is still easily available and as far as I can tell has never gone out of print in the 125 years since it was first published, maybe not very well known now but still worth searching out. I’ll leave the last word however to Kenneth Grahame himself.

Well! The Olympians are all past and gone. Somehow the sun does not seem to shine so brightly as it used; the trackless meadows of old time have shrunk and dwindled away to a few poor acres. A saddening doubt, a dull suspicion, creeps over me. Et in Arcadia ego—I certainly did once inhabit Arcady. Can it be that I also have become an Olympian?

Closing paragraph of the prologue to The Golden Age

Gaslight and Ghosts – Stephen Jones & Jo Fletcher (Editors)

This book was published in conjunction with the 1988 World Fantasy Convention held in October in London and contains works by what is presumably all the featured guests. That horror writer James Herbert was the guest of honour naturally led to a book of horror and supernatural tales interspersed with some articles on the subject, for example Neil Gaiman, with his journalists hat on, wrote an appreciation of the James Herbert’s works and literary merit. Some writers provided extracts from new or future novels such as Clive Barker’s Cabal or Terry Pratchett’s Pyramids, others supplied short stories from existing collections but there are also numerous new works represented in the twenty two stories and articles in the book, including the piece by James Herbert. Even the editors wrote a short horror teaser together as the opening story rather than a more predictable introduction.

On the 31st October, Halloween, I was between books for this blog and fancied something totally different from what I had been reading and preferably something I could read in small chunks as I didn’t want a full blown novel, maybe a collection of short stories would fit the bill? Perusing the shelves led to Gaslight and Ghosts and it just felt natural that this should be the book to start then. It is decades since I last read a horror or even a simple ghost story, Susan Hill in the book I reviewed last week even wondered if you grow out of them, well the answer is no you don’t.

From the articles included, Neil Gaiman’s review of the literary career of James Herbert is a s well written as you would expect from a writer of his talents. Hugh Lamb contributed a fascinating insight into Victorian horror stories and the joys and difficulties tracking them down and bringing them to modern readers. Mike Ashley produced an interesting summary of the relationship between the American magazine Weird Tales in the 1920’s and 30’s and the dozen books edited by Christine Campbell Thomson in the UK known as the ‘Not the Night’ series which largely seem to be a way of getting round the differing copyright laws on either side of the Atlantic. However Kim Newman supplied a frankly tedious twenty nine page listing of films featuring Jack the Ripper however tenuously he was in them.

But it is the stories that you come to a compendium like this for and there are some really great tales. I particularly liked ‘Beyond Any Measure’ by Karl Edward Wagner which is also by far the longest story in the collection and ‘Immortal Blood’ by Barbara Hambly. Both of these are vampire tales, which I definitely thought I had grown out of, but they are so well written the genre didn’t interfere with a cracking good tale. The oldest story included is ‘The Writer in the Garret’ by Brian Lumley which dates back to 1971 and was genuinely creepy even though you have a horrible feeling that you know how it is going to end; whilst the second oldest, ‘Cat and Mouse’ by Ramsey Campbell, from 1972 is truly terrifying. I could go on James Herbert’s ‘Halloween’s Child’ was written especially for the book and is as un-nerving as you would expect from this master of horror and to relieve the tension both Brian Aldiss and Diana Wynne Jones both provided humorous stories. This volume, as with any anthology associated with a specific event, is tricky but not impossible to track down and is definitely worth the effort.

I bought the book second hand and my copy is multiple signed, clearly the original owner had been round the convention getting as many people as possible to sign it on the opening page of their story or in one case an illustration. The signatories are a spread of the great and the good from 1980’s horror and fantasy writing: Stephen Jones and Jo Fletcher, James Herbert, Neil Gaiman, Clive Barker, Brian Lumley, Dave Carson (illustrator), Ronald Chetwynd-Hayes, Robert Holdstock, Ramsey Campbell, Karl Edward Wagner, Terry Pratchett, Adrian Cole, Kim Newman and Charles L Grant. Sadly a lot of these are no longer with us and the most notable omission from the signed stories is the one by Brian Aldiss who has also unfortunately died in the intervening thirty two years since publication.

A really good book, I’m glad I was wondering what to read on Halloween.

The Happy Prince – Oscar Wilde

20200218 The Happy Prince

This book has as its full title The Happy Prince and Other Stories as there are three more short tales by Oscar Wilde included although easily the most famous is The Happy Prince. As I read this story it seemed familiar although I’m quite certain that I haven’t read it before I must obviously have maybe heard it or read a summary at some point. All of the stories carry a moral so lets look at the four stories individually, they are short so not giving away the ending in a review is tricky but I think I have managed it…

The Happy Prince

The prince in the story is actually a statue on a high pedestal looking out over the city, the statue is covered in gold leaf, has emeralds for eyes and a ruby set in the pommel of his sword and he is far from happy. The young prince he is modelled on however led a ‘happy’ and sheltered privileged life not seeing anything outside the luxurious palace grounds and not knowing anything of the poverty that surrounded his domain, so the statue became known as The Happy Prince. Up here on his column however he can see the poor all around him and wishes he could do something to help them. He is visited by a swallow seeking shelter for the night on his delayed migration to Egypt which is why he is flying alone after the rest of his kind. When the statue tells the bird of how he wants to help the people he comes up with a plan to donate the riches that he has on his body to the needy and enlists the help of the swallow to distribute what he can. The story is heartwarming but ultimately tragic and I really enjoyed it.

The Young King

This concerns another happy prince within his gilded cage although this time he is about to become king and he has not always lived this life of privilege. This one however is enamoured with the riches that surround him, lost in wonder in front of great art and fine fabrics and jewels. The coronation is coming the robe, sceptre and crown are prepared when the night before the ceremony the young king to be has three strange dreams. In them he is confronted with the reality of how his ceremonial raiment has been made, the grinding poverty of the weavers, the death of a pearl fisherman, the deprivation of the mines needed for the fine jewels. The next morning he explains his dreams to the courtiers come to dress him for the ceremony and refuses to wear the outfit prepared, preferring a more lowly guise of the goat-herder he had been before being recognised as the heir apparent. At this point I was sure I knew where the story was heading but I’m glad to say I was wrong.

The Devoted Friend

My least favourite of the four stories, perhaps because it just repeatedly bangs the reader round the head with the moral, where the devoted friend turns out to really be the one who doesn’t consider himself the title character. I confess that I got irritated by the story as Wilde kept pushing his point

The Model Millionaire

The shortest of the stories also includes my favourite quote from the selection with Wilde employing the barbed wit for which he is famous. The story concerns an impecunious young man who whilst visiting an artist friend finds him painting a portrait of a beggar. Now the young man is in love, but the father of his beloved has made it clear that as he has little money and no prospects of getting any he is not considered an appropriate suitor for his daughter. Despite this he hands the beggar most of the money he has on him only to find his generosity repaid handsomely. What is the quote I liked so much, well it makes much of a fine distinction.

Trevor was a painter, indeed few people escape that nowadays. But he was also an artist, and artists are rather rare.

The cover of the book is a detail from a painting by James Pryde and is perfect to represent The Happy Prince on his column. The book is part of the Penguin 60’s series, published in 1995 to mark 60 years of Penguin Books. I bought all of them at the time and I’m ashamed to say still have a lot of them to read twenty five years later.

Strange Pilgrims – Gabriel García Márquez

For my 100th post on this blog I have chosen one of the lesser known works by Gabriel García Márquez, in fact it is his last published collection of short stories. They were started during the 1970’s and 80’s but were not actually published until 1992 with an English translation appearing a year later. My copy is the Penguin books edition translated by Edith Grossman and published in 1994 with a bizarre cover by Matthew Richardson of Eastwing Design. The twelve tales are linked by being all about Latin American characters travelling or living in Europe, this was a familiar position for Márquez at the time as he lived in Barcelona for seven years in the 1970’s, going there after the success of his novel “One Hundred Years of Solitude”.

Born in Columbia, Márquez spent a lot of his life in Mexico, although his time in Europe clearly had a significant influence on these works. Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982 he is probably best known for his novels, three of which are also on my shelves along with three more books of short stories. However because there are so many reviews of his novels such as “Love in the Time of Cholera”and “One Hundred Years of Solitude”  and also as I have a soft spot for well crafted short stories this collection had to be the one to read this week.

20191203 Strange Pilgrims

In the preface Márquez explains the long gestation of these stories, beginning with an exercise book in which he wrote sixty four tales none of which he was quite happy with, the dates each story was started is given after each one in the book and I have added this information as a date in brackets after each title below. He had several goes at rewriting but was never satisfied and the book was added to his papers to be looked at again when he might have a better idea how to work with the material. Unfortunately the exercise book got lost, presumably thrown out by accident, so he had a go at recreating them from memory. This reduced the total to about thirty and he is sanguine about this regarding the other half as clearly not good enough if he couldn’t remember how they went. The stories were still not right though and it was not until a final eight months of solid work finished the last ten included in this collection, which were all worked on simultaneously, that he finally had a book that he was happy to publish in the early 1990’s.

The twelve stories are each briefly reviewed below:-

Bon Voyage, Mr President (June 1979)

The first story concerns a familiar subject for Latin America, that of a deposed and exiled president finding treatment for illness in a foreign country, in this case Geneva in Switzerland. He is recognised by one of the ambulance drivers who comes from his original country and the driver plans along with his wife to get money from him by selling a fake insurance and funeral plan. The plot does not go as they intended and the development of the three characters makes an interesting twist.

The Saint (August 1981)

The Saint in the story is the incorruptible body of a seven year old girl from Columbia being taken round Rome by her father in an attempt to have her recognised as a saint. Well that is the initial premise anyway. In truth the story is more about the various characters staying in the hostel near the Vatican and their inter-reactions not only with each other, the saint and oddly the lion in the nearby zoo. The final two sentences of the tale though switch the meaning of the title in an unexpected way.

Sleeping Beauty and the Airplane (June 1982)

I’m not sure what to make of this story, it has a distinct voyeuristic tone that can be a little uncomfortable. The narrator sees a beautiful woman in Charles de Gaulle airport, Paris and then is pleased to see that he has the seat next to her on the plane to New York. The descriptions of watching her sleep next to him throughout the flight without any communication taking part between them throughout the journey makes odd reading.

I Sell My Dreams (March 1980)

Another tale regarding sleep, although this time the prophetic dreams of a Colombian woman who had come to Europe as a child and is first encountered by Márquez in Vienna. He sees her again many years later in Barcelona when he meets the Chilean poet Pablo Naruda and she is in the same restaurant and she is still making money from her dreams.

“I Only Came to Use the Phone” (April 1978)

The most disturbing story in the collection. A woman is driving on the way to Barcelona in a storm when her car breaks down. She is eventually picked up by a bus which drops her off at its destination so that she can use the phone. However the rest of the passengers are female mental patients and it is assumed at the asylum that she must also be a patient and she is prevented from calling her husband, sedated and admitted. The story describes her ultimate mental collapse as she tries and fails to explain her true situation.

The Ghosts of August (October 1980)

At less than four full pages this is the shortest work in the collection and is a really good ghost story, this time set in Tuscany and again involving a real person, in this case Venezuelan writer Miguel Otero Silva.

María dos Prazeres (May 1979)

Maria is a semi-retired prostitute in her seventies, originally from Manaus in Brazil but living for most of her life in the Gracia district of Barcelona. She now has only one client who has come to her weekly for decades and it is more a relationship than a business proposition. Convinced she is soon to die the story concerns her elaborate plans for her funeral and what is to happen with her belongings including her little dog afterwards. You really get to know her as the story unfolds and just as with other stories in this collection things suddenly change at the end.

Seventeen Poisoned Englishmen (April 1980)

The eponymous Englishmen are simply bit players in this tale of a Colombian widow who has travelled to Italy planning to see the Pope soon after the end of WWII. What it is more about is her reactions to post war Naples and her fears when she has to make her own way rather than the planned help she was expecting.

Tramontana (January 1982)

The Tramontana of the title is a persistent and powerful wind that the narrator of the tale experienced for three long days whilst staying in Cadaqués in Catalonia. He describes it as oppressive presence taking a personal affront to the presence of him and his family. It also clearly has a strong effect on all those who experience it.

Miss Forbes’s Summer of Happiness (1976)

Two young boys from Alta Guajira on the Colombian Caribbean coast are on the island of Pantelleria at the southern end of Sicily for a long summer holiday. For the first month they were with their parents and all was wonderful but they had left them in the care of a German governess called Miss Forbes whilst they went on a writers retreat elsewhere in the Mediterranean. She is very strict and the holiday had become intolerable to the boys, so much so that they resolve to kill her but the plot does not go as they intended…

Light is Like Water (December 1978)

This very short tale (around five pages) is positively surreal and again features two young boys around the ages that Márquez’s children would have been when he started to write it. As the narrator explains, he was asked how the light came on at a touch of the switch and replied “Light is like water, you turn the tap and out it comes”. Taking this seriously the boys break a bulb and sail a boat on the pool of light that cascades out of it despite being in an apartment on the fifth floor of a building in Madrid. But you should never play with liquid light.

The Trail of Your Blood in the Snow (1976)

Like the boys in ‘Light is Like Water’ the protagonists of this final tale are originally from Cartegena de Indias on the Colombian Caribbean coast but this time they are wealthy young adults recently married and travelling from Madrid to Paris overnight in a Bentley convertible that had been a wedding present. But Nena has cut her finger on a rose thorn and the bleeding will not stop.

A very enjoyable collection and if you have never read any Márquez it’s a good place to start. The stories do all feel that they belong together, possibly due to the simultaneous final rewriting yet are sufficiently different to highlight alternate aspects of his style. Highly recommended.

Ten Italian Folktales – Italo Calvino

20191022 Italian Folktales

As the title states there are ten tales included here and they are a wide mix so the best way to review the book is to look at each one in turn. Please note there will be the occasional spoiler but as these are folk tales it is entirely possible that you have come across the stories already or at least variants of them and it is those variants that I will mainly be referring to. The first story is Crack and Crook, this is one of the shortest tales and also one of the oddest included. It tells the story of two thieves who decide to team up to pull off a major robbery by tunnelling into the King’s treasury. They succeed in the attempt but this is where the story gets weird as the King, advised by another thief come up with stranger and stranger ways to identify the culprits. Story two is The Land Where One Never Dies which is basically a morality tale, the protagonist wishes to live forever but eventually discovers that he misses his family and local village.  Pome and Peel is another weird one as the title refers to two boys who were born after their mothers ate parts of a magic apple (one the flesh and the other the peel) and were inseparable throughout their lives until one wishes to marry a wizard’s daughter who puts a curse upon her when she runs away with the two men.

The Sleeping Queen is a strange variant of the classic Sleeping Beauty tale as it really seems to be two stories merged into one with the Sleeping Beauty part sandwiched between a morality tale. The middle bit has the castle surrounded by a motionless populace and in the castle is the Queen in her bed, however unlike the Perrault and Brothers Grimm versions of the story where she is awakened by a kiss, the Prince in this version gets into bed with her and she is awakened nine months later when she gives birth with everyone else starting to move again at the same time. This is much truer to the original version of the story from the fourteenth century where a princess gives birth to twins after her ‘rescuer’ leaves nine months earlier. But there is also the interwoven morality story in this tale about a blind King and his three sons who go off one after the other to find a cure for his blindness; but the two eldest abandon their quests when they find beautiful women that they fall in love with and decide to marry and forget all about the reason for their journeys. This leaves the youngest to complete the quest but he also gets betrayed by his feckless elder siblings before they get their comeuppance in their turn.

The next tale is The Enchanted Palace and this time a Prince gets lost in a forest whilst out hunting and finds a strange apparently deserted palace until a veiled lady with twelve maidservants suddenly appears, she dines and indeed sleeps with him all without saying a thing or removing her veil. It turns out she is under a curse and when he unwittingly breaks the terms of the spell she has of all things to go to Peterborough and be given as a prize in a jousting competition even though she is in fact the Queen of Portugal. That was a definite twist I hadn’t seen coming. After that is The King of Portugal’s Son so as the Italians clearly think the Portuguese Royal family are strange I was expecting something odd and wasn’t disappointed. It is difficult to summarise the plot of this one without giving too much away but yet again the twist in the end is well worth the reading of the story.

The two stories that follow are both very short, Apple Girl tells of a Queen who gives birth to an apple but inside the apple is a beautiful girl who escapes each day to bathe and do her hair before returning to the fruit until the spell is eventually broken. Joseph Ciufolo, Tiller-flautist is another short morality tale and is probably the weakest of the stories included.  There then follows Misfortune which is the tale of the youngest daughter of the Queen of Spain who is desperately unlucky and is cast out from her family to try to restore the luck of the rest of them. Eventually she meets and improves the temper of the grumpy witch who is controlling her fate thereby reviving her own fortune and that of her estranged family.

The final story in this selection is Jump into My Sack and this definitely felt familiar although I cannot place where I first heard it. It tells of a magic sack which will fill with anything the owner wishes and a stick which will do anything it is commanded to. Using these the hero of the story manages to have great wealth and use the powers for the betterment of others and even defeat the Devil.

Italo Calvino was born in Cuba in 1923 to Italian parents but grew up in Italy after they returned to their home country before he was two years old. After WWII he became a journalist on a Communist newspaper and also started to write novels and short stories. These folk tales are a selection from the two hundred that Calvino collated in 1956 from collections of folklorists across Italy. Having read this book, which was published in 1995 as part of a set marking the 60th anniversary of the founding of Penguin Books, I definitely need to get hold of the full collection to be able to enjoy the others but for now this is the only work by Calvino on my shelves.