Friday 19 July 2019

'Like an actor entering upon a stage'

The place is Syria, the time the past - the era of the Crusades - and a 'long row of tents and pavilions, glimmering or darkening as they lay in the moonlight or in the shade, were still and silent as the streets of a deserted city'. On to this exotic, enchanted scene steps a no less fantastical dwarf, 'like an actor entering upon the stage'. And this is the key to Scott and to The Talisman in particular, a tale of Richard the Lionheart, a brave Scottish knight, a hermit, Saracens, veiled ladies and dropped tokens of love.

It's heady and theatrical throughout, and I fail to see why it shouldn't be constantly in print. But perhaps the subject matter is too strong for these days. Yet the portrayal of Islam is often noble and positive; indeed, one marvels at Scott's knowledge of the East, which must have felt much more distant in 1825 than it does today.
Even Sir Kenneth, whose reason at once and prejudices were offended by seeing his companions in that which he considered as an act of idolatry, could not help respecting the sincerity of their misguided zeal, and being stimulated by their fervour to apply supplications to Heaven in a purer form, wondering, meanwhile, what new-born feelings could teach him to accompany in prayer, though with varied invocation, those very Saracens, whose heathenish worship he had conceived a crime dishonourable to the land in which high miracles had been wrought, and where the day-star of redemption had arisen.
Sir Kenneth is the norm, the Saracens the other; and yet there is an undercurrent of uncertainty, a saving subtext struggling beneath the restrictions of the convoluted syntax.

The novel's opening sections are magical, archetypal: a brave knight riding alone, an alliance with an emir, a trek into the hills to meet an ascetic. The novel continues strong but in a different vein as King Richard and his wife Berengaria, shifting allegiances and expediencies, politics and court intrigue, take the stage. The King and Queen are complex and human. As elsewhere, Scott presents his characters as if casually and seemingly unplanned. They develop over time and out of circumstances. The effect is cumulative. And all is rendered in Scott's slow, at times ponderous, but also intensely relaxing and comforting prose: a perfect balm for anxiety.

Sunday 7 July 2019

Brookner's Trollope

Reading Barchester Pilgrimage reminded me that we all construct our own versions of our favourite authors. Brookner was a Trollopian: she read him, she said, for decent feelings, and in her review of Victoria Glendinning's Trollope biography Brookner insisted any prospective reader must gain as an initial qualification a familiarity with every one of Trollope's forty-seven novels: a notion that seemed to me at the time, though not now, distant and exotic.

She refers directly to Trollope in her 1996 novel Altered States, speaking in the voice of the narrator Alan Sherwood:
Like Lady Stavely* in Orley Farm, my mother's favourite novel, 'She liked to see nice-dressed and nice-mannered people about her, preferring those whose fathers and mothers were nice before them.'
Was Orley Farm Brookner's own favourite Trollope? It seems an odd choice: an early novel, with more than a few misfires. Or perhaps she just happened to be reading or rather rereading it while writing Altered States. My own favourite would probably be something late and light like The Duke's Children or Ayala's Angel. But I guess, as I say, we all have our own Trollope.

*It's actually 'Staveley'. Not for the first time, Brookner's spelling is amiss. See also here.