Contemporary Novellas: Fludd by Hilary Mantel

A dark fable of lost faith and awakening love amidst the moors

5*

Novellas in November began this week, hosted by Cathy and Rebecca. Each week they will take it in turns to host a “buddy read” of a featured book they hope you will join in reading – see their blogs for details.

The definition of a novella is loose – it’s based on word count rather than number of pages – but they suggest aiming for 150 pages or under, with a firm upper limit of 200 pages. The prompt for this week is contemporary fiction, defined as post 1980 and hosted by Cathy,

My choice this week is Fludd by Hilary Mantel, first published in 1989 by Viking. My copy, published in 2010 by Fourth Estate, has 181 pages followed by additional features at the end, including an About the Author section, and an interview with Hilary Mantel.

Description:

Fetherhoughton is a drab, dreary town somewhere in a magical, half-real 1950s north England, a preserve of ignorance and superstition protected against the advance of reason by its impenetrable moor-fogs. Father Angwin, the town’s cynical priest, has lost his faith, and wants nothing more than to be left alone. Sister Philomena strains against the monotony of convent life and the pettiness of her fellow nuns. The rest of the town goes about their lives in a haze, a never-ending procession of grim, grey days stretching ahead of them.

Yet all of that is about to change. A strange visitor appears one stormy night, bringing with him the hint, the taste of something entirely new, something unknown. But who is Fludd? An angel come to shake the Fetherhoughtonians from their stupor, to reawaken Father Angwin’s faith, to show Philomena the nature of love? Or is he the devil himself, a shadowy wanderer of the darkest places in the human heart?

Full of dry wit, compassionate characterisations and cutting insight, Fludd is a brilliant gem of a book, and one of Hilary Mantel’s most original works.

My thoughts:

It is 1956, set in the north of England in the fictional village of Fetherhoughton, which is loosely based on the village where Mantel grew up. She was brought up as a Catholic and the idea for the story came from a conversation with her mother about her childhood. When she was around four the Bishop decreed that all the statues in the church were to be removed which annoyed the parishioners and she heard the adults talking about what to do with the statues. One suggestion was to bury them. Her mother also told her about a young priest, who everyone liked, and who disappeared. It was assumed that there was a girl involved. The two events combined in her mind and came out as this novel.

Mantel clarifies in a Note before the story begins that the church in Fludd bears some resemblance, but not much to the Roman Catholic Church in the real world. Fludd was a real person (1574 – 1637), a physician, scholar and alchemist and she adds that

In alchemy, everything has a literal and factual description, and in addition a description that is symbolic and fantastical.

This sets the scene for what follows – there is a mystery that lies beyond the visible world, miraculous things appear to happen and very ordinary things appear miraculous. There is a hint of the supernatural.

The story centres on Fludd, a young priest who comes to the Church of St Thomas Aquinas to help Father Angwin, a cynical priest who has lost his faith. The Bishop, a modern man, is concerned about Father Angwin and wants to bring him and the Catholic community up to date – so the statues in the church have to go. This has a most disturbing effect on all concerned – not just the church and Father Angwin, but also the the nuns in the convent, and the school, both under the stern eye of Mother Perpetua.

Fludd, himself is something of a mystery. When he eats the food disappears, but he is not seen eating. When he pours out whisky for Father Anwin the bottle always remains full. Strange things happen, a wart disappears from one character’s face and finds its way to another’s, one character apparently spontaneously combusts, another disappears and there’s a tobacconist who may or may not be the devil. The real question is just who is Fludd?

I enjoyed it all immensely – partly about religion and superstition, but also a fantasy, a fairy tale, told with wit and humour with brilliant characterisation.

Novellas in November: Novellas I’ve Read in Earlier Years

This is the first week of Novellas in November, hosted by Bookish Beck and Cathy at 746 Books, and like Susan and Annabelle, I’m looking back at some of the novellas I’ve previously read.

Tamburlaine Must Die by Louise Welsh – set in May 1593, it’s a tense, dramatic story of the last days of Christopher Marlowe, playwright, poet and spy. Accused of heresy and atheism, his death is a mystery, although conjecture and rumours abound. Louise Welsh has used several sources in writing this novella and it has an immediacy, that drew me in to the late Elizabethan world. It conveys the claustrophobic atmosphere of danger surrounding Marlowe; who can he trust, and who is behind the pseudonym of ‘Tamburlaine’, who posted a libellous handbill referencing Marlowe’s plays? He has just three days to find the murderous Tamburlaine, a killer escaped from the pages of his most violent play, Tamburlaine.

The Beacon by Susan Hill – a compelling story, drawing a picture of a family, four children and their parents living in the Beacon, an old North Country farmhouse. It’s also full of tension, of unspoken feelings and emotions as each child, Colin, May, Frank and Berenice grow up and leave home. Except that May came back after a year at university in London, unable to cope with ‘the terrors’ that began to assail her.  As the years pass, May is left at home caring for her widowed mother, after she suffered a stroke. It’s a powerful book about truth and memory, about the ordinary everyday outer lives we  live and the inner turmoil and tensions within us. It’s also about what we make of our lives, how we express ourselves and about how other people see us.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote is a quick read and very entertaining. The narrator is not named, although Holly Golightly calls him ‘Fred’ after her brother. He’s a writer and at the beginning of the book he is reminiscing about Holly with Joe Bell, who ran a bar around the corner on Lexington Avenue. They hadn’t seen or heard from Holly  for over two years. She used to live in the apartment below Fred’s in a brownstone in the East Seventies in New York. Her past is almost as unknown as her present whereabouts. Holly is a free spirit, charming and carefree, but craves attention. She has a cat, plays the guitar and likes to live as though she’s about to leave – all her belongings still in suitcases and crates – and has a great many friends who she entertains with numerous parties. But her life is really a mystery and not all is as it appears on the surface, longing for something wonderful to happen.

Cannery Row by John Steinbeck – I love this book. Steinbeck’s style is perfect for me, I could see Cannery Row itself, a strip of Monterey’s Ocean View Avenue, where the Monterey sardines were caught and canned or reduced to oil or fishmeal, along with all the characters – no, it was more than that -I was there in the thick of it, transported in my mind, whilst I was reading and even afterwards as I thought about the novel. There is humour and tragedy, meanness and generosity, life and death all within Cannery Row‘s 148 pages, full of fascinating characters including a group of down and outs, lead by Mack, the shop keeper, Lee Chong, who also owns the Palace Flophouse where he lets Mack and the boys live, Dora, a woman with flaming red hair, the madam who runs the Bear Flag Restaurant, Doc who lives and works at the Western Biological Laboratory and Henri the painter who is building and never finishing a boat.

Wycliffe and the Last Rites by W J Burley – set in Cornwall a bizarre murder shakes the village of Moresk. Arriving at church on Easter morning the vicar discovers the body of a woman sprawled across the chancel steps. To add to the horror, the church is filled with the discordant sound of an organ chord, the notes apparently chosen at random and wedged down.Detective Chief Superintendent Wycliffe’s problem in finding the murderer is that all the possible leads pointed to a limited range of possible suspects but none of them matched his specification for the criminal. It seemed he had to believe the impossible. It’s a tightly plotted book, concisely and precisely written and I enjoyed it very much

Novellas in November 2021

I’m glad to see that Cathy of 746 Books and Rebecca of BookishBeck are once again co-hosting Novellas in November as a month-long challenge with four weekly prompts. Each week they will take it in turns to host a “buddy read” of a featured book they hope we will join in reading.

They suggest 150–200 pages as the upper limit for a novella, and post-1980 as a definition of “contemporary.”

1–7 November: Contemporary fiction (Cathy)

Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson – including a giveaway of a signed copy!

8–14 November: Short nonfiction (Rebecca)

The Story of My Life by Helen Keller (free to download here from Project Gutenberg. Note: only the first 85 pages constitute her memoir; the rest is letters and supplementary material.)

15–21 November: Literature in translation (Cathy)

Territory of Light by Yuko Tsushima

22–28 November: Short classics (Rebecca)

Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton (free to download here from Project Gutenberg)

~~~

I enjoyed taking part last year so I’m looking forward to this year’s event. I read Ethan Frome in 2014 and loved it, so I think I’ll re-read it. Many years ago (I can’t remember when) I read a biography of Helen Keller, or it may even have been her autobiography, so I’ll have a look at that too. I also have several novellas on my TBR shelves to choose from.

Maigret and the Reluctant Witnesses by Georges Simenon

This week the theme for Novellas in November is Literature in Translation and I’ve chosen Maigret and the Reluctant Visitors by Georges Simenon translated from the French by William Hobson, a novella of 172 pages.

This is the 53rd Inspector Maigret book, originally published in 1955.

It is November and Maigret, nearing retirement, is in a melancholy, nostalgic mood. He has been called out to the home of the Lauchaume family where Léonard, the eldest son has been shot dead. The name Lachaume brings back memories of his childhood in the countryside where the village grocer sold Lachaume Biscuits. But the family is now in dire straits, living in a large house on the Quai de la Gare, Ivry and their biscuit factory is failing. Their house was once an impressive three storey building but is now in a state of decay, cold and damp. The rest of the Lachaume family, his younger brother Armand, Paulette Armand’s wife and his elderly parents, are not only reluctant to talk to the police, they don’t appear to be grieving.

It looks initially that the murder may have been part of a burglary, although only a wallet is missing, but Maigret is suspicious right from the start. His attempts to question the family are held up by their lawyer and also by the Examining Magistrate, Angelot who insists on taking charge of the case. But he makes headway when he visits Véronique Lachaume, Léonard’s estranged sister and eventually Paulette reluctantly talks to him.

The book as a whole has a nostalgic feel, the sense that the world is changing – the Lachaume family has been left behind. Their business has only been kept afloat by the money from the sons’ wives, but they are still proud and reluctant to face the true facts of their situation. Maigret, too, is beginning to realise that his world is changing. for one thing he is getting older, the new magistrates are the younger generation bringing in new methods and he is aware that he only has two years left before his retirement. However, he solves the case mainly through his own intuition, and so he casts off his melancholy.

I’ve now read several of the Maigret books totally out of order, so now I’ve decided it’s time I read the first book, Pietr the Latvian first published in 1931.

The Man Behind Narnia by A N Wilson

This week the theme for Novellas in November is nonfiction novellas and I read The Man behind Narnia by A N Wilson, about C S Lewis.

A N Wilson is the author of over forty books – 20 novels, biographies, a three-part history of the last 100 years, and stories for children.

I’ve read a few of his biographies, the latest one I read was about Queen Victoria. At 656 pages it took me 3 months to read and I learned so much and enjoyed it immensely. In 1990 he wrote a full length biography of C S Lewis (which I haven’t read) and in 2013 he made a BBC 4 documentary about Lewis and his work. I didn’t watch the programme, but that didn’t spoil my enjoyment of The Man Behind Narnia. In only 72 pages he writes briefly about Lewis’s life, his own reflections on Lewis’s works, and describes the making of the documentary.

Clive Staples Lewis (1898–1963) was a Fellow and Tutor in English Literature at Oxford University until 1954, when he was elected to the Chair of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge University, a position he held until his retirement. He wrote more than thirty books, including Mere Christianity, Out of the Silent PlanetThe Great DivorceThe Screwtape Letters, and The Chronicles of Narnia books.

I first came across Lewis’s books when I was a teenager and a friend lent me The Screwtape Letters and then I read his autobiography, Surprised by Joy – in which he tells the story of his conversion to Christianity and about his childhood in Ireland, his school years and his adolescence – then his time at Oxford University and in 1917 he enlisted and was sent to the front line in France. Since then I’ve read quite a lot of his theological books, including Mere Christianity, as well as The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (the first of his Narnia books) which I read about 15 years ago. I think I’d have enjoyed it more if I’d read it as a child.

I enjoyed Wilson’s book very much, but it really is as much about himself and the effects that Lewis’s writing has had on him as it it is about Lewis. He writes about the places where Lewis lived, Belfast where he was born, Dunluce Castle on the coast where he used to visit with his mother (the castle in the Narnia stories), the places he went to school in England, and Oxford University. I’ve realised in writing this post that Wilson’s book jumps around a lot from place to place whilst covering Lewis’s life at different periods of time, so that it might seem a disjointed book, but it isn’t. As I was reading it, it seemed to flow naturally.

He also writes about Lewis’s relationships with, amongst others his father, and Mrs Moore, his friend’s mother and later his lover (allegedly) and their life together at The Kilns in Headington. He only writes briefly about his marriage to Joy Davidman. Several years ago I remember being enthralled watching Anthony Hopkins, Debra Winger, and Julian Fellowes in Shadowlands (not a dry eye in the cinema). Shadowlands is  about Lewis’s meeting with Helen Joy Davidman and about the events that led to their marriage. And earlier this year I read Becoming Mrs Lewis, a novel by Patti Callahan about Joy Davidman and her meeting and subsequent marriage to Lewis, so I was interested to read what Wilson’s view of their relationship was. He too ‘dissolved into tears‘ whilst watching the film, ‘even though [he] knew the circumstances of Lewis’s marriage to Joy Davidman [bore] only the haziest relationship to the story of ‘Shadowlands’. Interesting, I wondered what he based this on. My impression of Joy from reading Becoming Mrs Lewis was that she was stalking Lewis and I couldn’t warm to her.

In Chapter three he writes about the Narnia stories. Like me Wilson didn’t read the Narnia stories as a child. He hadn’t wanted to spoil his admiration for Lewis’s academic books by dipping into Narnia and found Lewis ’embarrassing’ when he got onto the subject of religion. He finally read them when he was on holiday in the Hebrides with his family and as it was raining he read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe aloud to his daughters. The children were enraptured but he found it disturbing and shocking, with the Atonement theology of the story. But even so he found the story absolutely absorbing.

There is so much packed into this novella that I could probably go on writing about it. But this post is too long already, so I’m going to stop. If you’re interested in knowing more I can recommend reading it. I was fascinated and it has made me want to read more of Lewis’s books. I have little pile of them and haven’t read all of them yet.

The only one I’ve written about on this blog is Letters to Malcolm, a book about prayer. I’m also wondering whether to read Wilson’s biography of Lewis, or maybe Alister McGrath’s more recent biography, written in honour of the 50th anniversary of C. S. Lewis’s death, C S Lewis: A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet.

The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide: a Novella

This is my first novella review for Novellas in November hosted by Cathy and Rebecca

It was the cover of The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide, translated by Eric Selland, that first caught my eye. As a cat lover how could I resist this book? It is only short, 146 pages but it packs so much within those pages. And there was a lot that struck chords with me.

It is a story of how a cat made itself at home with a couple in their thirties who lived in a small rented house in a quiet part of Tokyo. The opening chapter describes the house and its position on a little alleyway the couple called ‘Lightning Alley’ because of its frequent sharp turns that one sees in drawings of lightning blots – or, I imagine, of the one on Harry Potter’s forehead. The alleyway followed a twisting path between the extensive grounds of an old estate and the place they were renting. It had originally been a guesthouse of the old estate, where their landlady lived. There was a rickety gate in a wooden fence, that was the landlady’s side entrance and the tenants’ front gate. And just beyond the gate was a knothole. I couldn’t quite visualise it but after reading it a few times I gave up trying to picture the scene and the optical illusion, like a camera obscura, the knothole projected on the small window in the corner of the kitchen.

I simply moved on to the story of the cat the narrator noticed in their garden. Their neighbours’ house to the east, which because of the twists and turns of Lightning Alley, was a distance away from them so that they rarely met face to face. But they could hear their neighbours’ little boy often playing where the alleyway turned sharply. One morning he announced his intention to keep a stray cat, Chibi, and they could hear the tinkling of the cat’s little bell. At first the cat was cautious and just peeked inside their little house but eventually Chibi spent a lot of time with the couple coming and going as she pleased.

Chibi was a jewel of a cat. Her pure white fur was mottled with several lampblack blotches containing just a bit of light brown. The sort of cat you might see just about anywhere in Japan, except she was especially slim and tiny.

These were her individual characteristics – slim and small, with ears that stood out, tapering off beautifully at the tips, and often twitching. She would approach silently and undetected to rub up against one’s legs. (page 11)

So, I wondered why the picture of the cat on the cover that caught my eye was different. I think the picture on the cover of the audio book is more like Chibi:

There’s not really much more to say about the story, except that is a collection of fragments – of events that gradually change the couple’s lives. Chibi becomes a source of joy to them both and they began to see the beauty around them. There are passages about Chibi’s activities – her agility, her unexpected ways and playfulness.

Having played to her heart’s content, Chibi would come inside and rest for a while. When she began to sleep on the sofa – like a talisman curled gently in the shape of a comma and dug up from the prehistoric archaeological site – a deep sense of happiness arrived as if the house itself had dreamed this scene. (page 14)

Hiraide’s description of nature is detailed – the garden of the large house in particular. And I was struck by his description of two dragonflies, copulating while flying, in formation like a bracelet ‘in the shape of a distorted heart.’

But then something happens that changes their lives again. Change over the passage of time is one of the main themes in this book. Others are about nature and the nature of belonging – who does Chibi belong to, were her visits to their home actually a homecoming or was her home really with the neighbours? This was one of the chords that resonated with me because my in-laws once had a little white cat, Mitzi, who went to live with one of their neighbours. The neighbours clearly thought she didn’t belong to them because although = they fed her and she lived with them they brought the vet bill to my in-laws for them to pay it.

And so the changes continued. The ending which gave me much pause (pun not intended) for thought, is ambiguous, a mystery left hanging for you to decide for yourself what had happened – inevitable, maybe.

I was curious about this book – is it fact or fiction? So, I looked online and I came across this article, about a book signing/discussion organised by the Japan Foundation at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation’s venue on Cambridge Street in Manchester. Takashi Hiraide explained that some of the novel including the location and living quarters for instance, are based on fact, although the novel is a mixture of reality and fiction.

He also explained that the novel is a Japanese ‘I’ novel and pointed out the problems in translating it into English. For example whereas in Japanese personal pronouns (such as ‘I’, ‘he and ‘she’) are not necessary in a sentence, in English they are. As a result the narrator, who in the novel is meant to be a detached observer, in the English translation sometimes becomes a character in the story, which explains the detached feeling I had whilst reading it. I was also interested to find out that Hiraide is influenced by modern art and that he regards book covers as an art form in themselves. So, the cover that first attracted me to the book was his choice (I guess).

I loved this novella – so different from other books I’ve read. It’s one of my To-Be-Read books that has been hiding in my Kindle for five years, until I looked to see if I had any novellas in e-book form.

My Friday Post: Maigret and the Reluctant Witnesses by Georges Simenon

Every Friday Book Beginnings on Friday is hosted by Gillion at Rose City Reader where you can share the first sentence (or so) of the book you are reading. You can also share from a book you want to highlight just because it caught your fancy.

Maigret and the Reluctant Witnesses is one of the novellas I included in my Novellas in November post. It has 172 pages and is Simenon’s 53rd Inspector Maigret book, first published in 1959.

It begins:

‘You haven’t forgotten your umbrella, have you?’

‘No.’

The door was about to shut, and Maigret was already turning towards the stairs.

‘You’d better wear your scarf.’

His wife ran to get it unaware that this little remark would leave him out of sorts for some time, melancholy thoughts churning through his brain.

Also every Friday there is The Friday 56, hosted by Freda at Freda’s Voice. *Grab a book, any book. *Turn to Page 56 or 56% on your  ereader . If you have to improvise, that is okay. *Find a snippet, short and sweet, but no spoilers!

  1. Grab a book, any book.
  2. Turn to page 56, or 56% on your eReader. If you have to improvise, that is okay.
  3. Find any sentence (or a few, just don’t spoil it) that grabs you.
  4. Post it.
  5. Add the URL to your post in the link on Freda’s most recent Friday 56 post.

Page 56:

My job is to look for the truth, and that is what I’m doing. Your presence in fact would incline me not to look very far, because it’s very unusual for the relatives of a murder victim to send for a lawyer before they can even be questioned by the police.

Blurb:

When the head of a powerful Parisian family business is murdered in his bed, Maigret must pick apart the family’s darkest secrets to reveal the truth.

“The curious thing was that there seemed to be no grief here, only a strange dejection, a kind of uneasy stupor…”

Maigret is called to the home of the high-profile Lachaume family where the eldest brother has been found shot dead. But on his arrival, the family closes ranks and claims to have heard and seen nothing at the time of the murder. Maigret must pick his way through the family’s web of lies, secrets, and deceit, as well as handle Angelot, a troublesome new breed of magistrate who has waded into the case. And it’s the estranged black sheep of the family, Veronique, who may hold the key to it all with her knowledge of the depths to which the family will sink to protect their reputation.

Novellas in November

Although I’ll be taking part in Nonfiction November I’ve been wondering whether to join in with Novellas in November, a month long event co-hosted by Cathy of 746 Books and Rebecca of BookishBeck. Their definition of a novella is loose – it’s based on word count rather than number of pages – but they suggest aiming for 150 pages or under, with a firm upper limit of 200 pages. Any genre is valid. Each week has a theme:

2–8 November: Contemporary fiction (Cathy)

9–15 November: Nonfiction novellas (Rebecca)

16–22 November: Literature in translation (Cathy)

23–29 November: Short classics (Rebecca)

So, I’ve been looking on my TBR shelves and found these novellas – a mix of genres:

I don’t expect I’ll read all of these – but I should be able to read one or two, maybe three?