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The Marlowe Papers (Barber) – book review

In amongst all of the PhD redrafting and the #NaNoWriMo project that now feels like it was months ago (although I need to get back to it soon…), I have tried to find time to read. In particular, I was really excited to read Ros Barber‘s The Marlowe Papers, a novel in verse that is, in part, about the Shakespeare authorship question.



Neo-Victorian #AcWriMo: week 3

Week three is up, and my #AcWriMo/#NaNoWriMo project is on-track at 36,500 words and counting.

I spent a fair amount of time this week tinkering around with Scalar to try to improve the styling, and I’m increasingly sceptical of the merits of Scalar for digital publishing. It might be useful for people without the time or inclination to produce something independently, but the Scalar 2 interface is currently poor. In the end, I abandoned it and reverted the whole piece back to Scalar 1 in order to get something that was more manageable. In Scalar 2, for example, it proved difficult to change the background colour (because it overlays its grey-and-white page over the top of it) or right-align any text without it intervening into the space left for the annotation tab. The whole structure seems to be under-developed at the moment, so reverting felt like the right thing to do.

I also had to go through the pieces already posted in order to deal with html that followed me from Scrivener. I haven’t used Scrivener for quite a long time, as it didn’t really suit my PhD writing process. Although I still like the organisational structure it gives for chapters and other pieces, which works well for creative projects, for future chapters I’m going to take things first through Atom and do some marking up there, as the Scalar HTML content pane isn’t very friendly for larger pieces (this is one of the few points where the Scalar 2 interface had the upperhand).

In terms of the writing itself, the story is finally branching out from the original, so the amount of creative work required has increased substantially. There’s quite a lot of research to be done, but I’m looking forward to getting the story substantially completed this week, and then getting to work on the framing and final touches. Only 10 days left!

Neo-Vic lit, Oscar Wilde and NaNoWriMo

It has been years since I’ve had enough time to do any writing creatively. I’ve dabbled a bit each summer, but the full-time job and part-time PhD have been more than enough to handle. Now that I’m on career break to focus on writing up, though, I think I might actually get a chance to focus on some creative projects, and the fact that it’s almost November is just perfect. I’m going to go back to NaNoWriMo!

While researching my PhD chapter on Oscar Wilde and The Picture of Dorian Gray, I did a lot of wider reading and reread Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Marble Faun. The homologies between the two novels—with characters and art blended in unusual ways—got me thinking, and I couldn’t help but wonder how Hawthorne’s tale might have been told differently. (Despite the very best efforts of Elisa New and her class on American poetry, my enjoyment of more overtly Puritanical nineteenth-century American fiction is always tempered.)

I started wondering how the bare facts of the story might be retold by a young Oscar Wilde, travelling Rome and the surrounding area. The ideas and values that produced Dorian Gray might have led the story in a completely different direction. I made some notes and toyed around with the idea a little a few years ago, so I’m going to resurrect it. As well as reframing the novel as a piece of neo-Victorian literature, I also plan to construct a critical paratext around the new text, framing it as a digital critical edition, with analyses of differences in style, form, and content.

Although most of my fiction and poetry writing has been digital, I’ve never conceived of novel-writing as a digital humanities project before, and it’s going to be fun to try out some of the skills that I’ve used annotating and creating editions on NAVSA’s Central Online Victorian Educator on an independent project.

Online publishing and pedagogy: some thoughts from working on NAVSA’s COVE

I have been working on various parts of NAVSA‘s Central Online Victorian Educator (COVE) for six months now, and I thought it would be a good time to reflect on the experience, as well as on how COVE might serve educators in the future.


The Spectre of Alexander Wolf (Gazdanov) — Book Review

I had never actually heard of this novella until I saw a review of this most recent translation by Bryan Kartenyk. Russian literature has always been something I’ve thoroughly enjoyed — thanks in no small part to a wonderful professor in college (William Mills Todd) — but known only partially. My primary academic focus is British literature, along with some elements of French and Spanish literature and a tiny dash of American literature, so reading Russian literature has only ever been a for-pleasure activity, easily squeezed out of my busy work and academic life.

The prose here is quick, but weighty, fast-paced but with an erudition of language and keen observation. The novella runs to only 150 pages or so; there is mystery, and a slightly supernatural air (similar to a Wilkie Collins novel), but it is not so ponderous that one can get frustrated. I’d recommend this to anyone who is a fan of stories that play with the uncanny and sensational fiction with a thoughtful side. The below includes a summary of the plot, so beware spoilers. (And I’d really recommend you read the story ‘cold’.)

Gazdanov was a Russian émigré after the Russian Civil War, and his own experiences inflect the background story of the novella’s main character: a young Russian exile in Paris after the war, a jobbing journalist by trade but with a grumbling dark side, or as he himself calls it, a ‘split personality’. He traces his troubles back to a near-fatal encounter during the war, where his horse was shot from under him, and in a moment of good luck, he manages to defend himself against his assailant, who he shoots and then hastily abandons moments from death. He is dogged by regret, and also, I think, by a sense of that defining moment as somehow incomplete for him, having been chased away by the sound of approaching horses. More than the fact of having killed his attacker (in self-defence, as he constantly reminds us), the protagonist seems affected by the sense that he had insufficient time and presence of mind positively to choose to commit the murderous act. 

The protagonist receives a shock when he reads a short story describing the murder he has committed from his assailant’s perspective, and realises that the story can only have been written by the dead man. He seeks out the author — Alexander Wolf — via his publisher’s, but he seems to hate Woolf, and nothing comes of that approach. Another chance comes from an unlikely encounter with a drunk fellow émigré in Paris, Vladimir Voznesensky, who claims to have fought with Sasha Wolf and to have rescued him, bleeding and nearly dead, after being shot. The mystery of the man’s survival is now made clear, but our narrator is worried now by another thought: that the man Voznesensky describes cannot possibly be reconciled with the psychological profile of Wolf the author. Our narrator thus continues to yearn for an encounter with Wolf in order to understand the shift between the two personalities.

A chance encounter with another Russian, Yelena, and the beginnings of a love affair seem to distract our narrator. He becomes engrossed with a woman who might best be described as recovering from some trauma. Impulsive and reserved, our narrator is drawn away from pursuing the psychological mysteries of Wolf and towards resolving those of Yelena. He eventually learns from her that her last relationship had left her almost entirely at the mercy of a man who believed that he had, by a twist of fate, missed his death-date, and so was living on borrowed time. His fatalism had almost sapped her of all her strength, but she had fled to Paris, thus to be rehabilitated through the love of the narrator, and he to be rehabilitated through hers.

Of course, this does not end happily, and the threads begin to come together swiftly at the end of the novella. Sasha Wolf appears in Paris, suddenly at the restaurant that the narrator and Voznesensky frequent. He is, by the narrator’s description, a spectre. There is something vacant in him — ‘an obscure expression, some sort of deathly significance’ — and our narrator remains troubled at the apparent disconnect between the Wolf in front of him and his psychological assessment of the author of I’ll Come Tomorrow. On the other hand, the description bears resemblance to Yelena’s former lover, obsessive and cold, on a ‘long journey’ towards his death. We begin to suspect that their chance encounter in Russia is not the only thing the narrator and Wolf have in common,  but the narrator suspects nothing and is thrown again into meditations on their mutual attempts at murder. 

In amongst these, a rather left-field plot device comes in the form of a connection between our journalist and organised criminals; having received a tip-off that the police are about to arrest ‘Curly Pierrot’, the narrator seeks to warn him to flee his safehouse before attending it with the police. Refusing to be taken alive, Curly is instead shot to death, and it is with this in mind that the narrator returns to Yelena’s apartment to find her in the midst of a fight with a man who can only be her former lover, judging from her cries of ‘Never, do you hear? Never!’ Instinctively, and ‘in a haze’, the narrator shoots and kills the assailant. Only afterwards, stepping over the body, does he realise that he has finally shot and killed Alexander Wolf, completing the fate that had evaded them both (or that they had both somehow evaded?) many years ago. 

The novella’s exploration of the meaning of fate and the effect that murder — even in self-defence — has on one’s character is rapidly truncated in this ending, and we are left to piece together from the narrator’s previous meditations, and what we know of Wolf from Voznesensky, Yelena, and his short appearance, the moral of the tale. Was the narrator fulfilling his and Wolf’s destiny? Were they ‘fated’ to be always pitted in mortal combat, and was this fate written by their own hands or in the stars? Cause and effect are potentially misordered here.

The very brief details about the narrator’s life after he shoots Wolf a second time are telling. He notices blood on Yelena’s dress and tells us that he ‘learnt afterwards’ that she had defended herself, and in doing so dodged Wolf’s bullet. This single sentence, given to us between his shooting and his approaching the corpse, does a great deal of work. The act of ‘noticing later’ comes up several times through the novella, and is performed by both the narrator and Yelena. That she survives — and that the narrator needs us to know that — and that she fought back and saved herself from Wolf a second time, suggests that the happy life she and the narrator had begun to live together continues after this fatal shooting. Successfully killing Wolf has, it is suggested, set the narrator finally free. However, I think we must recall the narrator’s description of his previous life, full of regret at having pulled the trigger in haste. This is exactly what seems to have taken place in Yelena’s apartment: an impulsive, defensive shooting with no knowledge of whom he is murdering until after the fact. What, then, distinguishes one incident from the other? Are we to believe that one act instantiates a ‘split personality’ and a life of unhappiness, and the other opens the door to a life of contentment with Yelena? 

Perhaps we can believe this, if we see the second act as the exorcism of Wolf’s spectre, but I would also question this interpretation because of the rather random inclusion by the narrator of the story of ‘Curly Pierrot’ immediately prior to the confrontation at Yelena’s apartment. Curly, a gangster whose acquaintance the narrator makes solely by chance, is a useful source for him in his journalistic work, as is a police detective who is on the verge of arresting Curly. The narrator tries to warn Curly to flee his compromised safehouse, and then attends with the police who are hoping to make the arrest. His warning has come too late, however, and Curly is trapped in the house. Preferring death in a shoot-out to death at the gallows, Curly allows himself to be shot by the police, thanking the narrator for his tip-off with his dying breath. Was it Curly’s fate to die at that moment, or his choice? We have little cause for thinking the former, but if the latter, then the inclusion of the story by the narrator seems to invite us to conclude that Wolf chose his death, rather than continuing his life as a morphine addict; however, the conversation that we overhear appears to be a snippet of Wolf seeking to persuade Yelena to return to him. I think the narrator’s framing of Wolf’s death therefore self-servingly elides the choice that Wolf may have been trying to make to live, in order that he and Yelena may have their lives returned to them free of Wolf’s ‘spectre’.

Let the Right One In (Lindqvist) — book review

I always meant to watch the 2009 film of this (details on IMDB), but came across Lindqvist‘s Let the Right One In in the Kindle store and thought that I would buy it to save for a moment of boredom when I wanted to read something on my phone/iPad (I use the app and don’t have an actual Kindle). That moment came on a plane recently, when I’d read most of Rayner’s A Greedy Man in a Hungry World (review) and wanted something new to help keep me awake!

I would highly recommend this book, as it’s a gripping read.

Although told mainly through the eyes of a 12-year-old boy, Oskar, the book tackles a wide range of seriously ‘grown-up’ issues, including child abuse and neglect, ‘broken homes’  and absent parents, alcoholism, paedophilia, and chronic bullying. It can be hard to judge when reading in translation, but I found Lindqvist’s style wonderfully clear and lucid. I enjoyed the story’s focus on two core groups that parallel one other: Oskar and his classmates, and Lacke and his friends (and fellow alcoholics).

The growing relationship between Oskar and new arrival, Eli, is a joy. There is something very understated in the way that each and every momentous discovery in their relationship — She’s a vampire? She’s a boy? — is handled lightly but not flippantly. Oskar’s growing detachment from his parents and isolation from his schoolmates, most of whom either actively bully him or passively ostracise him, leaves his hopes of having his emotional needs met pinned exclusively on Eli. The coming-of-age story, Oskar beginning to stand up for himself and pursue physical fitness as a means of taking control of his life, is blended with the horror story of a vampire slipping into the midst of the small community and decimating it. Bodies stack up quickly, and Eli is both monstrous and fascinating. Eli’s story, told mainly in flashbacks, has echoes of Anne Rice’s Armand, but isn’t Lindqvist’s focus, and it lurks in the background as a dark echo of the suffering of the modern-day children in the book.

Many of the most heartrending moments come from these ‘minor’ characters, particularly from Tommy, an older teen, sliding into drug use and petty crime, whose mother is on the verge of marrying a police officer who will inevitably hate his stepson (the suggestion is he’s a likely abuser); and from Jonny, Oskar’s nemesis, whose tangled family situation and struggle with his emotions about his absent father, hint at sad roots to his behaviour.

The book manages to produce moments of real menace, and surprisingly, none of them were incited by Eli. I felt real terror for Tommy, locked in with a brain-damaged, priapic, vampire-Hakan; for Oskar as Jonny and his brother and friends begin to descend upon him, apparently intent on murder or maiming; and for Eli when being attacked by paedophile Hakan, and when Lacke plans to murder Eli for killing his friend Jocke and his some-time girlfriend, Virginia. Although only a small element in the novel, I also felt real concern for Tommy’s mother, so wishing to be loved that she is willing to shrink herself — and probably put herself in physical danger — in order to be in a relationship with police officer Steffan.

This is a story where the weak, generally children, but also vulnerable adults, are threatened and imperilled by the strong; where those who are abused turn on those below them in turn; and where a darker threat is in fact a possible saviour. It is sensitive and well done, except for the very ending of the book, when Eli murders Jonny and his brother in order to rescue Oskar. The violence between Oskar and his bullies had been slowly escalating, through physical wounds and arson to their attempted murder, but I wonder whether its culmination had to be so flippant. Eli whips off their heads and, whilst flying, deposits them in the swimming pool. Was the sadism in Eli’s revenge really needed? Perhaps it was, as the ultimate escalation of the whole novel’s violence, but it didn’t quite ring true for me.

Perdido Street Station (Mieville) — book review

China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station is, I think, the longest book on my Classics Club list, at 867 pages, and so is the jewel in the crown of my Chunkster reading challenge entry!* I’ve read Miéville’s Kraken before, but none of the Bas-Lag series. I heard him speak at a few different events during the Edinburgh Book Festival’s 50th anniversary World Writers Conference, and I was impressed with his insight and bold, uncompromising politics (try his London’s Overview for an example).

I’m glad that I read this and got through it quickly enough that I could keep up with the thread of the story (sometimes a challenge with chunksters!). The plot revolves around an unorthodox mixed-species couple, renegade scientist Isaac and artist Lin, both commissioned by unusual customers: Yagharek, a criminal looking to use technology to reverse his punishment (the loss of his wings), and Motley, a drug-lord who has used technology to become an enormous, composite creature and who wants his form immortalised. The two commissions collide when one of the devilish, almost indestructible moths that Motley is farming — sold to him by the corrupt government — ends up in Isaac’s lab as a possible winged specimen, resulting in five moths being released and terrorising the city. 

The book is political in its presentation of an unwholesome urban landscape run by a corrupt government; overcrowded, dirty, full of little warring factions, stricken by poverty. The way that Miéville develops and draws New Crobuzon, particularly the religious factions (one of which Lin has escaped) and the scientific community (a totalising university and creatives working outside it). However, the book loses its way about 70% through, when it becomes plot focused. Along the way, the book shifts from being contemplative and mysterious to being a relatively straightforward ‘renegade bands defeat evil where the authorities cannot’ story, á la Diehard or a Clive Cussler novel

The rag-tag group surrounding Isaac becomes more of a set of stock characters. The political activist (Derkhan), wounded and troubled, but willing to do whatever is necessary; the troubled misfit (Yagharek) who it transpires has all of the skills others are lacking (agility and impressive strength); and the small cast of criminals and mercenaries who are just enough to get things done. Intriguing characters are introduced but hardly used to their full potential, such as the Council (a self-constructed AI) and the Weaver (a multidimensional spider responsible for the ‘world weave’). I found myself reading simply to get to the end, to find out how they achieve their mission, but not because I had any particular interest in the characters or the world anymore. Isaac’s kidnap of a dying man to be sacrificed in the crisis engine that will destroy the moths hardly registers because, unsurprisingly, the main characters are trying not to think about it, and therefore neither does Miéville.

Despite its length, I think the novel therefore fails in its efforts to be an epic. Yagharek’s journey bookends the whole novel, and its individual chapters. At the end, he is abandoned by Isaac after Isaac is confronted by the victim of Yagharek’s crime, for which he was dewinged: ‘choice theft’ in his homeland, but as the visiting garuda says, “You would call it rape”. This final fling with moralising is literally tacked on to the main story, part of Isaac, Lin and Derkhan’s escape from the militia that are supposedly hunting them (although the government also essentially drop off the radar about 70% through the book, left as only a stock dystopian presence). It is a shame that with 850+ pages, the book wasn’t able to balance the need for a clear plot with the spirit of sketching a convincing new world.

* I’ve been slightly remiss in posting the links to my reviews on the Chunkster page, but will be doing so for this one and will try to remember in future.