Tuesday 27 March 2018

The Dumb House

I was reading some poetry by John Burnside some months ago so when I came across 'The Dumb House' on a recent charity shop trawl I bought it. I read it, but I did not like it. I think that the subject matter negated any consideration of style and the central character was so disgusting that I could only read on in fascinated horror. 

Narrated by Luke the story follows his secluded childhood and how he becomes fascinated by language and a story of children raised without speech by Akbar the Mughal. He has a peculiar close relationship with his mother, the only person who seems to understand him, and the only other person he appears to acknowledge as a human being. He treats everyone else he encounters as irrelevant, and only of interest if they serve his purpose. After his mother's death he begins researching into the nature of language, educating himself widely but indiscriminately. He meets a woman with a son who does not speak, but becomes more drawn to her than to the child. By chance he encounters another young woman who is dumb and 'rescues' her from the influence of a local vagrant. When he realises she is pregnant he goes about making preparations for his own experiment. It does not progress as he anticipates and in the end he accepts the failure and decides he will have to start again. It reminded me a little of 'The Collector' by John Fowles, who's protagonist similarly imprisons someone for his own devices and plots to begin again when his 'experiment' fails. 

He is a totally reliable narrator, because he has nothing to hide. He relates his thoughts and actions as if they are utterly sane and logical. He sees most people as shallow and their lives meaningless, and himself as pursuing a higher path. Although he says he becomes 'fond' of Lillian it is more as if she is a pet than as a person. He is marked as a megalomaniac for me because he does not find anything interesting in the twins' amazing abilities, but is only frustrated by them because it was not what he wanted to happen, and then he becomes afraid of them because he perceives them as mocking him. He is weirdly dissociated from his own behaviour and lacks any kind of moral framework, though he obviously knows social codes and can behave like a normal person when the situation requires. 

Here he is confronted and attacked by the dumb boy:

" 'You're quite clever, really,' I said. 'You're not as stupid as you pretend.'
He watched me. I think I saw a flicker of contempt then, as if he had guessed what I was going to do before I even knew myself. If he had, he still wasn't afraid: he kept his eyes fixed on my face as I took his thumb in my left hand and, with an effort I found quite exhilarating, twisted it back and felt it snap. His face showed the pain, but he made no sound. He didn't cry out, he didn't even struggle, he only whimpered a little, towards the end, as I broke each finger in turn, gripping his arm tightly and holding him up as he began to slump, his face white as death, his eyes glazed, his legs giving way beneath him, as if he were suffering from vertigo. When I had finished I let him fall, and he lay still in the puddles of orange juice and egg yolk. I believe he must have fainted. I stood over him, listening: there was no sound from upstairs, no sound except his breathing. For a moment I was dizzy with the sheer immediacy of it all - the sweet-sickly smell, the boy's golden hair, his broken fingers, the thought of the woman upstairs, still sleeping, warm and damp and vulnerable. The thought passed through my head that I might go back up and finish what I had begun, but I pulled myself together and left, slipping out the back way as always, moving invisibly through the garden and out into the gathering darkness." (p.60-61)

A very intense little book, quite emotionally draining; a portrait of humanity at its worst.

La Belle Sauvage

Book of Dust Volume One 'La Belle Sauvage' by Philip Pullman sat, incredibly, for several months, on the arm of the sofa. Having agreed to read it together there just weren't moments when we were all in the house and available at the same time, and then Monkey kept going away visiting and then we had the house move and it just dragged on and on. The dust (but not the Dust) has settled and now, finally, we managed to read. Philip Pullman did not disappoint, but then I would never have expected him to. It was wonderful to re-enter the world of the alethiometer, to meet old friends (though somewhat younger than they were last time) and find new ones. 

Malcolm Polstead and his daemon Asta live on the river and own a boat, La Belle Sauvage. The boat herself becomes as much of a character as anyone else, and her fate is just as vital to the plot. The insidious influence of the church, represented by the Consistorial Court of Discipline, is encroaching on daily life, recruiting school children to spy on their friends and family. The arrival of a baby at the priory across the river, brings a variety of strangers to The Trout inn, all very curious about her. After witnessing peculiar events on the riverbank Malcolm is befriended by the scholar Hannah Relf, who's appearance in His Dark Materials is unremarkable, but here she draws him unintentionally into the underground movement 'Oakley street'. When another of our old friends, Farder Coram, arrives and gives Malcolm some timely advice we know to trust him, though all that follows takes on a magical quality; who is responsible for the flood is never quite clear. 

We enjoyed being able to spot people we already knew, and to feel familiar with the terminology of Lyra's world. The book does much to satisfy the need to know more detail, more background to the events in Dark Materials, to broaden the picture of the other world. We jumped back in as if we had never left. 

Here is Malcolm on the riverbank watching a stranger search for something he has dropped:

" 'We could go and help,' said Asta.
Malcolm was torn. He could still see the grebes, and he very much wanted to watch them, but the man seemed as if he needed help, and he was sure Asta's eyes would find the thing, whatever it was. It would only take a minute or so.
But before he had the chance to do anything, the man bent and scooped up his cat-daemon and made of quite quickly down the towpath as if he'd decided to go and get help. At once Malcolm backed the canoe out of the reeds and sped forward to the spot under the oak tree, where the man had been standing. A moment later he'd jumped out holding the painter, and Asta in the shape of a mouse shot across the path and under the bush. A rustling of leaves, a silence, more rustling, more silence, while Malcolm watched the man reach the little iron footbridge to the piazza and climb the steps. Then a squeak of excitement told Malcolm that Asta had found it, and squirrel-formed she came racing back, up his rm and on to his shoulder, and dropped something into his hand.
'It must be this,' she said. 'It must be.'
At first sight it was an acorn, but it was oddly heavy, and when he looked more closely he saw that it was carved out of a piece of tight-grained wood. Two pieces, in face: one for the cup, whose surface was carved into an exact replica of the rough overlapping scales of a real one and stained very lightly with green; and one for the nut, which was polished and waxed a perfect glossy light brown. It was beautiful, and Asta was right: it had to be the thing the man had lost." (p.29.30)

Thanks Philip, we eagerly await the next instalment.

Sunday 18 March 2018

Making the house a home: Part 1

Over the few last weeks time not spent at work has mostly been 
dedicated to making the house more homey. 
A cosy curtain at the front door to keep the draughts at bay:
The back hallway has become the cloakroom, with the maps for added educational value:
The cellar is still a jumble but we are making cushions and organising the boxes so it can become a craft room:
The upstairs landing is becoming an art collage of postcards and found pictures, a work in progress that will be added to over time:
I picked up an abandoned chair from the pavement as I rode home from work the other week and Tish has decoupaged, painted and recovered it:

I helped her for a while and then decided to do my own little decoupage project:
We have a few other things still in progress so there will be more updates over the weeks to come.

Different countries

I read 'A Month in the Country' by J.L. Carr many years ago when I joined a book group in Stow on the Wold. Mum sent it to me for Christmas so I read it again. It is the most exquisitely lovely book, about how quiet can sooth the troubled soul. Set in the aftermath of the First World War Tom Birkin travels to a fictional Yorkshire village to uncover a medieval church mural, and there finds both individuals and a community that reaffirm the meaning of life after his dehumanising experiences in the trenches. It is an intensely nostalgic book, but then maybe books set in summer often are. At around a hundred pages it would always be a couple of hours well spent. Here, a random quote, because any passage would do:

"It must have been nine or ten days before Mrs Keach (the Vicar's wife) visited. I didn't work to set meal-times and came down the ladder when I was hungry. And, in the middle of those hot August days, I usually cut two rough rounds of loaf and a wedge of Wensleydale and took it outside to eat. On Saturdays and Sundays, I had a bottle of pale ale; weekdays, water.
It was so hot the day she came that the grey cat let me approach almost to within touch before it slipped off Elijah Fletcher's box tomb into the rank grass and then into its bramble patch. It was here, above Elijah, that I normally sat and ate, looking across to Moon's camp, letting summer soak into me - the smell of summer and summer sounds. Already I felt part of it all, not a looker-on like some casual visitor. I should like to have believed that men working out in the fields looked up and, seeing me there, acknowledged that I'd become part of the landscape, 'that painter chap, doing a job, earning his keep.'
So I nudged back my bum and lay flat on the stone table, covered my eyes with a khaki handkerchief and, doubtlessly groaning gently, dropped off into a deep sleep. When I awoke, she was leaning against the grey limestone wall looking towards me. She was wearing a dusky pink dress." (p.30)

Visiting my sister a couple of weeks ago I usually get an audiobook for the train and our new local library in Hulme did not have much of a selection. I came away with 'The Sister's Brothers' by Patrick Dewitt that was shortlisted for the Booker a few years ago, and not a title I would have gone out of my way to read. It turned out to be a most engaging tale, in spite of the random casual violence. Narrated by Eli Sisters, one of a pair of hired killers, it tells the story of their travels across America to California during the Gold Rush, and also, via his diary, the story of the man they are going there to kill. While I did enjoy the picture it painted of the place and the era, it was my attachment to Eli that kept my listening, taking the book to work after I got back because I wanted to know what became of them. He has trailed all his life after his admired older brother Charlie, but somehow he yearns for a different, more settled life, promising himself each time that this will be the last job. The people they meet along the way, the crying man, the lady accountant, his rather pathetic horse Tub, and then Hermann (their intended victim) himself, and the consequences of choices they make, all compound to make a different future not only possible but inevitable. No quote because I had to return it, but I would certainly recommend it. Having had mixed feelings about 'All the Pretty Horses' I had been somewhat put off this genre of narrative so I am glad I gave it another chance.