East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

Leave a comment

52 Books, #3 – Queens Walk in the Dusk

Queens walk in the dusk
Thomas Burnett Swann, 1977

What an unusual book!

Thomas Burnett Swann was a critic, a poet and a writer of fantasy. He used classic mythology and history in his stories, and Queen walks in the dusk, while the first of the Latium Trilogy dealing with the origin of Rome, was in fact is last book, published posthumously – Swann died in 1976.

Swann’s name had been on my radar for ages – mentioned in articles and essays, sometimes compared to Jack Vance for his prose. That’s high praise indeed, and reason enough to check this guy out. It was a while now I wanted to read his books, and I decided to start from this one. And I was impressed, baffled, and utterly fascinated.

Queens walk in the dusk is a retelling of the story of Dido and Aeneas. I understand that to English-speaking readers, the story is familiar, if at all, through Henry Purcell’s opera, but to us in Italy, it is part of the school curriculum, and as such we know it well, and hate it (because we often hate what is imposed on us by school programs).
So there is this sense of deja-vu, in the story Swann is telling us.
But the strangeness and the charm of this book is not in the story itself – that is good, mind you – but in the style.

The world in which the story is set is the one of the ancient Greeks and Romans – a world peopled with monsters and gods that enter the everyday lives of the inhabitants, a world in which you can hold a conversation with a ship’s spirit. The sense of wonder of this state of affairs lays not in the extraordinary, but in its commonplace status. This is a wonderful world because everywhere is magic, and power. It is also quite cosmopolitan, the characters being aware not only of the various kingdoms and peoples of the Mediterranean, but also of far-away India (we visit an elephant town in Africa in which Ganesha is worshiped by the elephant population).
And the story is told in such a world in a way that reminds one of the ancient epics – not for its bombast, but for its straightforward manner in which wonders and magic are presented, and for its economy.
Dido loves Glaucus. He is killed by her brother Pygmalion.
She flees Thyre, stealing half the fleet, and builds Carthage.
Aeneas flees the burning Troy and seven years later lands on the coast of Carthage.
All this, in thirty, forty pages. Not a word is wasted, and yet at the same time the language is rich, with a tempo that recalls a ballad or an oral tradition more than a book, a modern novel.
The thoughts and the actions of the characters are thoughts and actions from the ancient world, guided and informed by different mores, and a different morality. This makes some situations particularly grating – Ascanius, Aeneas’ ten-years-old son is appalling in his role as a sex-obsessed smartass who tries in the bluntest of ways to get his dad a woman to replace his dead mother. But the character is historically realistic and true to the version in the Aeneid – and let’s admit it, we hated the little runt even in Virgil’s original, back in high school.

And yet, for all of these classically-derived elements, Queens walk in the dusk is a thoroughly modern tale, and one that gives us characters with complex and fully-developed psychologies.

The final result is strange, but highly entertaining and quite good.
I will read more of Thomas Burnett Swann’s novels, and I fully understand why, while many seem to have forgotten him, those that remember his work cherish it and consider it a classic.

(WAIT! What happened to Book #2?!
Apparently, WordPress decided to lose the programmed post – I will reload it in a few days. Sorry for the inconvenience)

Leave a comment

52 books, #1 – Still LIfe with Woodpecker

First title in my 2022 challenge, and a much needed re-read.

Still Life with Woodpecker
By Tom Robbins, 1980

When I got out of high school I was not very happy. The fact is, for a fair chunk of the duration of my high school years, certainly for the last three years I had been – or I had thought I was being – very popular.
Everybody was studying on copies of my class notes, everybody wanted a hand when tests were drawing near. There were afternoons I spent hours on the phone – these were the ‘80s, remember, we had landlines then. A lot of my school mates wanted to read my stories – that I churned out on my mother’s old Olivetti Lettera 32.
Then high school ended, and I was alone.
Turns out I had not been popular, I had just been useful.
I still had my stories, and I kept writing, but I no longer had anyone willing to read my stuff. My university colleagues were supremely dismissive. They were not interested in stories, most certainly not in science fiction and fantasy and adventure stories.
I was alone.
And my writing stopped working.
Mind you, I was 19 and I was very bad, but now I was bad and completely stuck.
It was at this point that I found a paperback copy of Still LIfe with Woodpecker, on the shelves of the Libreria Luxemburg, in Turin.

The e third novel of the man that Italian writer and translator Fernanda Pivano had called “the most dangerous writer in the world”, Still Life with Woodpecker is a book you need before you hit twenty.
At least, that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.
After twenty, most of us are too fucking cynical to really enjoy this book, and, say, before 17, we are not mature enough.
So I was lucky, and I hit the Woodpecker just at the right time.

This is a novel, of course.
A fantasy of sorts, a love story that takes place in a pack of Camels, and deals with issues like what is the purpose of the moon, and how to make love stay. It features an outlaw (not a criminal, the difference thereof is discussed in the text) and a princess.
It features UFOs and drug smugglers, the CIA and terrorism. It deals with environmentalism, and social justice.
It also features extensive dialogs between the author and his typewriter – it even mentions Olivetti, saying it’s a juggler’s name – and it also includes a lot of lists: the most famous redheads, the main character’s favorite home-made explosives recipes…

When I found it, and read it twice, it was exactly the book that I needed. It helped me with my sudden sense of isolation and also it helped with my writing.
Because this, THIS was what I wanted to do when I wrote my stories – Robbins’ language is absolutely dazzling, his wit and his intelligence are as sharp as a razor, and he’s telling you “you think language is not fluid enough to give off sparks, kid? Well, hold my beer…”
Still life with woodpecker is a novel by an author that has complete control over his language, one that can make his words do what he needs.
THIS is what I was looking for at 19, and I am still looking for now.

So it feels like a good idea to start this series of posts, and this new year, with a book that, quite simply, saved my life. I have read almost everything that Robbins wrote before and after, and I am … no, not a fan.
I am a grateful reader.
The woodpecker, I read it every once in a while, when I want to remember that it can be done, and how beautiful it is when it works.

So maybe you might want to check it out.
Maybe you’re alone, and a little lost.
Maybe you no longer have faith in your ability to write.
Maybe you are between 17 and 20, somewhere inside of you.
If any of this applies, this is a book you might enjoy.

Leave a comment

Getting ready for 2022 (if possible)

So, it’s the end of the year.
Today we celebrate St David, so I’ll have a bit of a celebration, here alone in the fog-shrouded countryside, and then I’ll take a while off.

I will take this time to r4echarge my batteries before I dive into my writing work again in January, and I will also put the finishing touches on my silly projects (aka “good propositions”) for 2022.

Continue reading

1 Comment

52 Books

So, here is an idea.
I have put together a list of 52 books.
Of these 49 I have here, either on my shelf or on my e-reader. The other three I’ll get as soon as possible (one comes out in April, I’ve pre-ordered it already).
So the idea was – I can read (and in a couple of cases, re-read) one per week, and then do a post. The list is pretty eclectic – it features novels and short story collections, a couple of comic books, a lot of non-fiction (science and nature, history, politics & economy).
Some books are well known, a lot of others are not so widely popular.

I thought about doing this as a podcast but came to the conclusion that
a . I hate my voice
b . I don’t like talking to myself
c . writing is faster

Also, yes – d . a blog post is cost-free, while a podcast archiving space costs money.

I would add that at this moment my desire to communicate with the people out here is VERY close to zero, so I am thinking about doing this for my Patrons, but I will also devise a way to post out here too – without short-charging my supporters. I have an idea already.

So, what do you say?