When I flew out of New York City in 1951 for Karachi, Kabul, and Delhi, I planned to write a book about the famous mountains that stretch across northern India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. The Himalayas, the Karakorams, and the Hindu Kush-all geologically one-had long fascinated me.
William O. Douglas – Beyond the High Himalayas
A new, 70-years old book for my collection – I just got me a digital copy of William O. Douglas’ Beyond the High Himalayas. That sounds quite promising.
Douglas (1898-1980), that was a SCOTUS judge since 1939 and a prominent proponent of environmental justice, spent the 1950s traveling in the Middle and Far East, and he wrote a lot of books about his experiences. Beyond the High Himalayas was his second book, published in 1952.
I knew nothing about Douglas and his book, but today during lunch time I re-watched for the umpteenth time Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, and there, right at the end, I caught a brief shot of Grace Kelly, sitting on a couch and reading a book.
I always try and spot the titles of books that appear in movies – especially movies I love – and I was quite surprised when I realized the book Kelly’s reading is somewhat connected with my general interests. A freeze-frame allowed me to get the title, and then I did a quick search – and found out the book’s available for real cheap as an ebook on Amazon. And I know I said I would not spend more money on books in 2022, but I’ve just got a gift card for my forthcoming birthday and… well, I did it.
This is a sort of rabbit hole in which I am about to dive. And why not carry you along?
Science fiction was always considered cheap drivel in Italy – commercial fiction fit to entertain the “technical classes” (that is, mechanics, factory workers and engineers) while “proper intellectuals” (whatever that means) got into the classics. But despite the stigma (that SF shared with fantasy, romance, mystery and any other “popular” literature), for a brief season, between the 1950s and the 1980s, SF was really big in Italy.
In the mid-50s the genre appeared on the Italian news-stands, in the form of “magazines” that were in fact cheap pulp paperbacks. And if Urania was the spearhead of this new invasion, a lot of other magazines popped in and out of existence, lasting for a few months, or a few years.
One of these was Cronache del Futuro (Chronicles of the Future), published by KAPPA Edizioni, that ran for 24 numbers, between August 1957 and August 1958. It was sold for 150 lire a copy. Cover art was mostly provided by Curt Caesar – an Italian comic artist and illustrator of German origins, that had served in the Afrika Korps under Rommel, and who also did cover art for Urania and other magazines. The magazine featured short novels from Italian writers hiding behind an Anglophone alias. The only writer to appear in Cronache del Futuro with her real name was Nora de Siebert, probably because she “sounded foreign”.
Born on the 22nd of March 1917, De Siebert apparently started writing when she was still in her teens, and by the ’40s had established herself as a very prolific full-time writer, doing romance, science fiction, comic books and photoplays, and scripting a movie (a lowbrow comedy, in 1961). She was a pulp writer, in other words, and a good one – to the point that one of her stories, “Un Sogno Smarrito” (A Misplaced Dream) was the first romance novel published in 1958 in the new “Collana Rosa” from KAPPA Edizioni.
Before that, KAPPA published a number of her SF novels
Ora Zero, la Terra non Risponde (Zero Hour, Earth doesn’t copy) – 1957 and serialized as Fuga nella Galassia (Escape in the Galaxy) between 1957 and 1958
Umanità immortale (Immortal Humanity) – 1957
Il silos di cristallo (The cristal silos) – 1958
Trasfusione atomica (Atomic transfusion) – 1958
Il Totem dello spazio (Space totem) – 1958
Ricerca dell’inverosimile (Search for the Unlikely) – 1958
For some reason, Ricerca dell’Inverosimile was published under a male alias, Norman MC Kennedy – and it was even given an “original title” (Search for the Unknown) and a “translator”, in order to reinforce the illusion this was “proper SF” written by an American man, not by an Italian woman. I was unable to track down any further outing of Mr Mc Kennedy.
Cronache del Futuro also ran a few short stories from De Siebert, as an appendix to other people’s novels.
Many of De Siebert’s SF stories were often set against the background of future societies in which women were relegated to a subordinate, “ornamental” roles – usually by design and with the help of mind controlling techniques, as men had found out that women could beat them at their own game if allowed; the main protagonists in these stories usually rebelled against the status quo. Not bad, for stories written in a backwater like Italy, in the 1950s.
With the end of Cronache del Futuro, De Siebert’s science-fictional output dried up. In 1962 her novel La porta sull’aldilà (The door to the beyond) was the first – and only – title in a new series of news-stand paperback magazines called I Racconti di Nharadham. The magazine died after the first issue, probably because nobody knew how to pronounce its name. In 1967, De Siebert also had a story in an anthology called Fantasesso (yes, Fantasex) – an old short known as The female from Antares, and originally published in Cronache dal Futuro, but now reprinted as La femmina inappagata (the unfulfilled female). Because so it was in ancient times.
Nora De Siebert died in Rome on the 23rd of November 1989.
Today, Nora De Siebert is almost completely forgotten, and her SF novels are hard to find collector’s items. They sometimes appear on eBay, and I have half a mind of keeping an eye out and maybe get a couple. They’d make for a fun translation project. For certain I will continue to search for further information of De Siebert, because she seems to be a woman after my own heart.
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)
I should be writing, but I am reading instead. It’s very cold, the countryside is still and dreary, and I need to recharge my batteries. I have stories to write, stories to translate, work on two games over which the deadline looms closer and closer. But like I always do, like I have been doing ever since I was eight, I got a new book for Christmas, and I am reading it.
The book is Dangerous Visions and New Worlds: Radical Science Fiction 1950-1980, and it is a multi-faceted, in-depth survey of what I grew up calling “New Wave”.
Edited by Andrew Nette and Iain McIntyre, this is part of a series, and I should get the other two books – about counterculture and youth culture in pulp and popular fiction respectively.
It will be a while, I am afraid, because as I have explained elsewhere, one of my good propositions for 2022 is to stop buying books until I’ll have been through a substantial part of my ever-growing TBR. I will also cut all unnecessary expenditures, in an experiment whose purpose is trying to stop compulsive (and meaningless) buying.
This sounds a lot more radical and political than it really is, and goes well with the book I am reading – because here we have the highs and lows of the revolution, the Swinging London of Michael Moorcock and the savage fury of authors like Ellison, Disch, Farmer.
The volume is a collection of monographic articles, nicely illustrated with covers from the books of the time. For someone like me, that grew up reading SF in the late ’70s and through the ’80s, this is like browsing an old school yearbook, and catching photographs of old friends.
It is also a dire menace to my promise of not buying books in 2022 – because a lot of the titles discussed I read, but a lot I only know through word of mouth, and now, after seeing them so intelligently analyzed, I want to read them.
I love ghost stories. They were the first form of genre fiction I ever read, before crime stories, or science fiction, or sword & sorcery, and to this day, I still love a good ghost story. So, this being the season and all that, here’s a very general list of names you might want to check out.
As it usually (and frequently) happens, I was looking for a gift for my brother’s birthday, and I ended up buying a few books for myself. I also found a suitable gift for the brother, so it’s all right.
And among the books I bought for myself there’s one that’s moving steadily to the top of the best books I read this year. I bought it from Amazon and I am happy of my purchase, but you can find it for free on the Project Gutenberg.
The book is called The Road to En-Dor, and it was written in 1919 by a former officer of the British army, Welshman E.H. Jones. The subtitle is suggestive…
BEING AN ACCOUNT OF HOW TWO PRISONERS OF WAR AT YOZGAD IN TURKEY WON THEIR WAY TO FREEDOM
It is the account of how Jones and RAF pilot C.W. Hill, both prisoners of the Turkish forces in a camp in the Altai mountains, set up a colossal spiritualist scam in order to bamboozle their guards and make good their escape. It took them almost two years, and a lot of chutzpah. Jones calls his fake medium ploy “spooking” and the made-up Spirit Guide he created with the help of Hill is, of course “The Spook”.
The book is written in a plain, straightforward tone and it does really sound like the reminiscences of someone that saw some pretty dark places, but got through it all, and now can talk about it. Jones is a fine writer, the plot hatched around the ouija board is the sort of crazy that would be deemed implausible in a novel, and the succession of events feels like a very good adventure comedy-drama. The BBC should do a series from this book. Indeed, there is a screenplay, written in 2014 by Neil Gaiman and Penn Jillette (of Penn & Teller) – but apparently nobody was interested in shooting the script.
This book ticks all the right boxes with me – it’s an adventure story, it’s set in the East and somewhat along the Silk Road, it’s set in the early 20th century. It features war (and little-known episodes of the Great war inparticular), danger, espionage, bravery, survival, the supernatural, stage magic and confidence games. And it’s a true story, narrated with the dry wit of a man from a more civilized time. This is a perfect example of why I love history so much.
I am reading C.S. Forester’s The African Queen, the classic 1935 adventure story that in 1951 was turned into a movie by John Huston, featuring Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart. I must have seen the film a thousand times, and it remains one of the all-time great romantic adventure films, but I had never read the original novel – nor was I particularly familiar with C.S. Forester’s other books. Sure, I saw a number of adaptations of his Hornblower stories, but I had never read any.
And I must say I am impressed by Forester’s narrative economy and skill in creating characters and bringing them alive on the page. The prose is lean and direct, the images vivid, and the psychology of the characters masterfully presented. The lot, with an almost total lack of artifice. This is entertainment, without any conceit or affectation, and yet it manages to be literature. Really, I am surprised they don’t study this book in schools – and it really is a concise, fun master class in how to write an adventure story.
And the good news is, while I spent some of my hard-earned money for a copy of the novel, you can actually download an ebook edition for free, from this page. I really recommend the novel – if you are a fan of the Bogart/Hepburn movie, doubly so. And if you read it – or if you knew it already – tell me what you think of it in the comments.