Friday, 23 November 2012

A Pad In The Straw by Christopher Woodforde, Sundial Press

We are in the immediate post-war era of Home Counties everydayness,
when the green-belt motorist became as much of a regular fixture under
the gaze of the herd-rearing farmer as his own harboured Pagan fables.
  These twenty tales - first published in 1952 - see this sixtieth anniversary
reissue as the first in Dorset's 'Sundial Supernatural' series. A tone of
tinted old world charm and politely accommodating innocence pervade
each, and with good reason.  Woodforde was Chaplain of New College,
Oxford, at the time, writing them down in the wake of declaiming them
aloud to the eight intrigued chorister boys in his charge.
  Also something of an antiquarian scholar of the Middle Ages, these tales
were, in truth, a sideline, his true literary calling as scholar of Middle Age
antiquity expressed in pamphlets and subsequent notable tomes on the
provenance of medieval stained glass. ('Stained Glass in Somerset 1250-
1830' (1946) and 'The Norwich School of Glass-Painting in the Fifteenth
Century' (1950) representing the recognised peak of his output).
  If there is a feeling of deja-vu here, then, yes, the biog so far somewhat
mirrors that of M.R. James. Except a lighter touch is employed in the likes
of the title story,  'The Old Tithe Barn' 'The Chalk Pit' and 'The "Doom"
Window At Breckham' where historical location, while key to the re-opening
of old portals, never hold back the tales' forward momentum.
Others, possibly named after, or at least in tribute, to his early teenage
listeners, (such as 'Colin, Peter and Philip,' 'Malcolm,' 'Hugh' and 'Jeremy'
etc.) are equally light jumping-off points by which to inveigle the original
audience's attention.
  What Woodforde quietly excels at is the ability to suddenly reveal the
troubling manifestation right at tale's end, almost as an objectively reported
aside or afterthought.  This lends an added tone of 'authenticity, ' at the very
moment a whimper of an ending is anticipated rather than the received
unnerving sting.
  Myself not being religiously inclined, it's pleasing to note any preacherly
warnings of 'evil' are limited to generalities of youth straying from the path of
personal responsibility by their own naivete, which can hardly be deemed
controversial even by today's atheistic generation.  The air of gentleness,
however, may not be for some modern tastes; but most contain a shock that
suddenly belies it, ensuring you should never take such surface appearances
for granted.

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Wormwood, Edited by Mark Valentine, Tartarus Press

Just a note to remind readers that the latest bi-annual issue of the excellent 'Wormwood' (Number 19, Autumn 2012) is now available from Tartarus Press. Featuring in-depth, informative and entertaining essays and reviews by the likes of Henry Wessells, Roger Dobson, Brian J. Showers, Lucien Verval, Jason Rolfe, Reggie Oliver, Douglas A. Anderson and Yours Truly.

The Book Of Monelle by Marcel Schwob, (translated by Kit Schluter), Wakefield Press

No one has quite done desire better than the French - certainly 
compared to the literature of the British in this period.  To them, 
unrequitable love must be seen, by tale's end, to be punished - by 
smothering consignment - from the State, as represented by the 
Church.  'It is, after all, a rather weak-bladdered and embarrassing 
subject to expose one's readers' too, is it not, old chap? Let the 
bugger see the error of his ways - do him and the reader good.'
  Not so to our European cousins, who spent generations shamelessly 
exposing their hearts upon their sleeves.  It is only in recent years the 
British discovered the pained, unreturned passion of the influential 
Regency critic William Hazlitt, or (some of) the harboured peccadilloes 
of Charles Dodgson.
  Real-life cases both, but as is that which inspired 'Monelle' on its first
publication, during its author's lifetime, in 1894.
  Described on the smart, gray back cover of Wakefield Press's new 
edition as having 'immediately (become) the unofficial bible of the 
French symbolist movement,' it is, quite openly, Schwob's own paean 
to a young Parisian prostitute who'd all too soon succumbed to TB the 
end of the previous year.  
  This subplot bookends ten short, scenic fables, ('The Sisters of
Monelle') each as starkly pictorial as a Renoir or Bunel film
generations hence; until, at last, we reach the autobiographical final 
third. The sense of yearning, of clinging to what can only be lost, is 
moving, if not borderline obsessive were it not for the simple, heart-
catching beauty of the prose. The mythic, ornate style intimated in 
otherwise tightly shorn sentences is a precised, subjective version of 
that which sparkles through Schwob's previous short story collection,
'The King In The Golden Mask.' (Still available from Tartarus Press).  
  Still there is hope, but one dependent upon narrator-Schwob's utilising 
free will; "Forget all things," he is advised, "and all things shall be given 
back unto you.  Forget Monelle, and she shall be given back unto you.  
This is the new word.  Imitate the newborn dog, whose eyes are not yet 
open, and who blindly feels out a niche for its cold muzzle."  
Such abandonment to instinct virtually sums up the fin-de-siecle creed.
  Ultimately, the European take on desire is vindicated. The irony being 
such emotional exposures of the self have not diminished these writers' 
reputations in the eyes of their readers; altered them, perhaps, shifting 
our perspectives, but also enriched them.
  A useful afterword by Kit Schluter fleshes out Schwob's biographical
parallel after this lovely, picaresque journey of less than one-hundred