It’s been a tight couple of months on the reading front or, more precisely, the writing about reading front. Some urgent work tasks interposed, and the last thing I wanted to do was write recreationally after a fair bit of the professional kind. Some of it has turned out good – article has been accepted (hooray!) – and some of it may yet turn out good. Some of it was comments on other people’s writing: yes, it has been marking season, followed closely and urgently by the season of Exam Boards. But we’re through all that, and the only really big duty in front of me is the small matter of a conference I’ve organised that comes to town this week.
Reading becomes a bit of a luxury amidst that, but I did find time to make it through The Shipping News over the last little while. It’s one that had passed me by when it first came out, nor did I catch the film. Not Canadian literary fiction exactly, but in the ballpark – certainly in the right setting – so we feel a bit closer to that one. And after a recent tear on fiction in translation, it was time to return to something intended for my mother tongue.
Clearly, the right place to go afterwards was Accordion Crimes. I actually asked my wife which I should read (the “first” was implied), and she steered me to the Newfie tale. This one, she said, was bigger and sprawlier, harder to capture. Knowing my tastes, she suspected it might not be so much to my liking as a dedicated narrative to a contained story. Nonetheless, I am a musical guy, and it’s about accordions. I’d heard reviews of this one from when it came out that compelled me. So I picked it up, and now I’m nearly through it.
I confess, it’s hard going at times. Proulx gives us heavy stuff. The extremity of the sadness of her characters’ situations becomes almost comical. I’m often biting back an “Oh, come on…” as I read. In that sense, it’s rather baroque, and maybe that is a feature of the things that aim to be a Great American Novel. Canadians have often gone, by contrast, for the smaller and the contained (there’s that word again). Proulx seems conscious of her efforts, here, and there are frustrating moments through this novel where she is deliberately telling me something Iconic and True about the People of that Country and the Country Itself. Her third annoying tick is to add sly parenthetical asides about the future of characters we’re just about to never hear from again, once again adding absurd fates that raise questions that don’t get answered. Some call it stylish, but if I were her editor, I’d be reaching for the red pen
Surviving through these moments, there are also some really great moments and set pieces. Her imagination is evident, and when she focuses on real people and their circumstances, it can be quite moving and very well written. The sections about Dolor Gagnon and, before him, Abelardo Relámpagos were great. I thought maybe her trick was to continually heat up the further along she got, but the Cajun family, the Malefoots, seemed excessively dark and unredemptive. Well, anyway, it’s America, right?
And she does write about music pretty well – very well, at times. This thing about writers trying to write engagingly about music – how it sounds, how it makes characters feel – can be very difficult. Novelists go there at their peril. But you can’t write a book about an accordion and not venture to those places, and I’m pretty glad she did.
When I get through it, I will move in a completely different direction. I was primed for Miriam Toews’s Women Talking, which my wife received from a friend when she was unexpectedly in Canada last autumn. Something about the right time, right situation, right book, who knows, but she was gripped by it and has already read it thrice. I thought it would be a good voice to follow (Proulx’s Barkskins is in the house, but I gather it pulls ideas out of the same box of tricks as Accordion Crimes, so I’d rather a change of gear).
However, we heard on the radio at breakfast not too long ago an interview with Neil Gaiman, talking about the script he’d written for a television adaptation of Good Omens. It was coming out directly on Amazon Prime, which I’ve been very successful so far in not caring at all about, but the radio helpfully let us know that it would be released afterwards on BBC. And look at us – license fee payers and iPlayer partakers. So that sounds like something to see, some time.
But, hmm, problem is I haven’t read it yet. It’s one of those books that, as a kid who liked fantasy novels and comic books, people would recommend to me. This kept up in my early adult years, too. I was often close. Hand on the spine type thing. But I never quite went for it. Something in me – maybe some of that subtle recognition of the kinds of people who recommended it to me, my awareness of their own tastes, and a latent knowledge that book recommendations are often so much more indicative of the recommender than the recommendee – made me pause. It seemed a) too English, b) too silly, and probably c) too irreverent in ways that aren’t offered with love.
Since there’s TV that might be fun to watch, I should correct this. I requested it from the library (oddly, all the copies they have were out…) and didn’t worry much more about it. Then got an e-mail this week: it’s in! Hurrah! Plus, we recently read Pratchett’s Truckers, Diggers, and Wings with the kids at bedtime on the recommendation of good friends, and it was rather amusing (especially Truckers), so I feel that I could take another chance on the man.
At bedtime right now, we’re re-reading Arthur Ransome’s Peter Duck. The cover, I know, does not look promising. It’s a cheap copy we found at the used book vendor in Cardiff Market, and chuckle though we might at these oddly smiling children in white, it’s what’s between the covers that’s important.
Our family is very keen on Ransome. The Swallows and Amazons were not at all part of my upbringing, but they were significant for my wife. And, years ago, when I went to Edinburgh to interview for a PhD scholarship and felt pretty confident I’d nailed it, I visited a used book shop near the Meadows where I decided to pick up books for Katie and each of the kids as a hopeful momento. For her, I got Swallows and Amazons, and then we read it to the kids at bedtime. The descriptions of rigging sails and whatnot got a bit tedious, but the kids were very drawn by the characters and relationships, so we pressed on through all of the books. (I do think Ransome got better at his craft as he went along.)
Somewhere along the way, we picked up a third child, but he clearly was too young to register these stories, so more recently, we’ve returned to them, interrupted from time to time by other stories. To be honest, I’d kind of avoided this one, which I believe is the second one that Ransome published in the series. It’s fun and piratical, but it sits imaginatively outside the typical timeline of the Swallows and Amazons. This “summer after” their adventures on Wild Cat Island in the Lake District would seem to happen at the same time as the (excellent) Swallowdale, and how can they be camping on a Cumbrian fell and sailing to the Caribbean at the same time? The improbability is solved by considering the very active imaginations of the children, especially Able Seaman Titty, and so Peter Duck, as well as Missie Lee, has an “and it was all a dream” quality to it that, to its credit, is never explicitly stated within the confines of the story itself.
Ransome’s books are a paradox: both fantasy and realism at the same time. The hyper-competence of the children, the latitude they are granted by the responsible adults, and the genial endurance of their childhood across the ageing spread of pre-adolescent to adolescent boys and girls all feel convenient and invented. It’s certainly not a story that could happen in 2019, and we might legitimately wonder whether it was possible or likely 90 years ago. Yet the realism with which it is rendered anchors it. These kids can do all these things because they demonstrate that they can. They prove their abilities, making subsequent adventures work. (My favourite of the whole bunch is We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea, which should be unthinkable in terms of four children sailing a ship across the North Sea overnight in a storm… except, well, it is those Walker children, and we’ve seen what they can do…) Ransome has a real bead on the individual voices and, aside from the complete absence of any sexual tension, the unique relationships of all of the children. Helpfully, as the series goes on, he introduces a pair of children – Dorothea and Dick Callum – who are not nearly so competent but absolutely game and really lost in wonder; they are Ransome’s readers, who couldn’t sail a ship right but would very much love to if only these other seemingly nice children would give them a shot.
So at bedtime now, we are transported to an expectant summer holiday on a ship in Lowestoft Harbour that in time will migrate to the blue equatorial waters with a gold-earringed scoundrel called Blake Jake on its tail. Not a bad way to kill the school year.