Monday, March 16, 2015

observe Glossin's body lying doubled across the iron bar, in a posture that excluded all idea of his being alive

No kidding, Walter, I say in reference to the line I cribbed for the title of this post.

I finished Walter Scott's 1815 novel Guy Mannering last night, the last fifty pages being essentially a tying up of loose ends and a final working out of all the plot threads. The heroes have been heroic, the heroines brave and pretty if essentially otherwise useless, the villains have been villainous but are now all dead after having been publicly stripped of whatever false honor they may have been cloaked in, etc. Nothing--absolutely nothing--that happens in the last fifty or seventy pages of this novel comes as a surprise, except possibly the level of violence. Still, anyone who's read Dickens or Shakespeare will have seen more implausible denouements and higher body counts, so all's well that ends well. Scott pulls the ending of his story around to bookend the beginning:
Bertram here produced a small velvet bag, which he said he had worn round his neck from his earliest infancy, and which he had preserved, first from superstitious reverence, and latterly from the hope that it might serve one day to aid in the discovery of his birth. The bag, being opened, was found to contain a blue silk case, from which was drawn a scheme of nativity. Upon inspecting this paper, Colonel Mannering instantly admitted it was his own composition; and afforded the strongest and most satisfactory evidence that the possessor of it must necessarily be the young heir of Ellangowan, by avowing his having first appeared in that country in the character of an astrologer.
Highly unlikely, Walter. Highly unlikely. My next book by Scott, I think, will be Waverly, his first novel. I don't know when I'll read it. I have a lot of other books sitting in the way. I don't know which of them I'll pick up tonight.

Also finished this weekend was the short story "The Snow Storm," part of my novel-in-progress Antosha in Prague. I am very close to being done with the first draft of that novel. I'm writing the penultimate story at present, and the ultimate story is almost finished as well (I started that one months and months ago). My plan is to have this draft wrapped up by Friday, see if I don't. And then, thank Heaven, I won't have to think about this book for quite some time, and you, my imaginary readers, won't have to read about it again. Luck for all.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

composed of the most vulgar materials: Walter Scott visits Edinburgh

Colonel Mannering, after threading a dark lane or two, reached the High Street, then clanging with the voices of oyster-women and the bells of pye-men; for it had, as his guide assured him, just' chappit eight upon the Tron.' It was long since Mannering had been in the street of a crowded metropolis, which, with its noise and clamour, its sounds of trade, of revelry, and of license, its variety of lights, and the eternally changing bustle of its hundred groups, offers, by night especially, a spectacle which, though composed of the most vulgar materials when they are separately considered, has, when they are combined, a striking and powerful effect on the imagination. The extraordinary height of the houses was marked by lights, which, glimmering irregularly along their front, ascended so high among the attics that they seemed at length to twinkle in the middle sky. This coup d'aeil, which still subsists in a certain degree, was then more imposing, owing to the uninterrupted range of buildings on each side, which, broken only at the space where the North Bridge joins the main street, formed a superb and uniform place, extending from the front of the Lucken-booths to the head of the Canongate, and corresponding in breadth and length to the uncommon height of the buildings on either side.
Walter Scott provides his reader with a trip to Edinburgh and descriptions of local color: the streets, the houses, the high-jinks in the taverns, a middle-class funeral, etc. Why? Because he can, that's why. Mannering is sent on a trip to the City to settle business that could have been done via post, in two pages of narrative, because Walter Scott wants to talk about the view of the Firth of Forth from Lawyer Pleydell's library. He also wants to remind the reader that Scotland was home to many of the great philosophical and literary minds of the 18th and 19th centuries (lunch with David Hume*, John Clerk, Adam Smith and others, though alas all off-screen).

I was originally going to put Scott's description of Edinburgh against bits from John Ruskin's lectures about that city's architecture ("Of all the cities in the British Islands, Edinburgh is the one which presents most advantages for the display of a noble building; and which, on the other hand, sustains most injury in the erection of a commonplace or unworthy one."), but I have decided not to. The reader is encouraged to imagine such a juxtaposition, however.

This morning it occurred to me that Guy Mannering is, in some important ways, a book about fatherhood, or at least about father figures and the treatment of children. So again, a clear precursor to Dickens. I might write more about that. Or, I might not. I'm sure that twenty-three seconds spent on google or JSTOR would reveal a great wealth of scholarly writing about this subject that would make any contribution of mine redundant.

*In a chronological slip-up (a constant danger for writers of historical fiction), Scott has Mannering dine with Hume sometime in the early 1780s, by which time Hume was already dead. I sympathize with Scott, for a variety of reasons.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

quite so near the agonies of the expiring salmon: more Guy Mannering

I feel the terrors of a child who has in heedless sport put in motion some powerful piece of machinery; and, while he beholds wheels revolving, chains clashing, cylinders rolling around him, is equally astonished at the tremendous powers which his weak agency has called into action, and terrified for the consequences which he is compelled to await, without the possibility of averting them.
The above is the ending of a letter from Julia Mannering to her bosom friend, Matilda Marchmont. It could also stand as notice from Walter Scott, author of Guy Mannering, that the machinery of the novel's plot has built up a good head of steam and is about to go crashing through the landscape of western Scotland. Guy Mannering is a very plotty romance (by which I mean 19th-century adventure-with-heroes) novel; you can see the influence Scott had on Dickens.

To illustrate, I'll give you a summary of the events of, say, the first half of the book:
  • Guy Mannering, young Oxford student on vacation in Scotland, is benighted at Ellangowan manor on the night where Lady Ellangown gives birth to a son, Harry. Mannering was raised in part by a vicar who practiced astrology, and so Mannering thinks it would be a good lark to cast young Harry's horoscope. See my previous post about astrology in Guy Mannering.
  • Mannering returns to Oxford, then invisibly joins the English army and goes off to India. Five years after the opening scenes, young Harry goes missing; he's believed murdered by smugglers.
  • Seventeen more years pass:
    Our narration is now about to make a large stride, and omit a space of nearly seventeen years; during which nothing occurred of any particular consequence with respect to the story we have undertaken to tell. The gap is a wide one; yet if the reader's experience in life enables him to look back on so many years, the space will scarce appear longer in his recollection than the time consumed in turning these pages.
    Lord Ellangowan is in financial disgrace and his estate is being auctioned off. His teenaged daughter Lucy is being very brave about it all. Enter Guy Mannering, now wealthy and retired from the army, a heroic veteran of all sorts of heroic action in India. He rents an estate up the way from Ellangowan, which is sold to a young punk (a lawyer, of all things) who made a lot of money abetting the smuggling trade.
  • Before Mannering and his daughter (the above-quoted Julia) move into their rented estate, Julia is pursued by one Mr Brown, a young officer who served under Mannering in India. To nobody's surprise, Brown is in fact Harry Ellangowan, who was kidnapped and raised in Holland. Brown is pitching woo to Julia. Mannering, unaware of Brown's true identity, disapproves.
  • Mannering, after moving into his rented estate, has a violent run-in with smugglers. One smuggler--the very one who kidnapped Harry Ellangowan/Mr Brown seventeen years ago--is shot dead.
  • Mr Brown has taken a long and interesting (to Walter Scott, at any rate) walking tour of Scotland, during which he has run foul of smugglers and had all of his possessions stolen. He is saved by one Meg Merrilies, a gypsy who recognizes Brown as Harry Ellangowan now fully grown. Meg gives Harry a purse full of his own family jewels and a lot of cash. Later, Brown has an unfortunate tangle with Mr Hazelwood, the son of a wealthy neighbor of the Mannerings. During their scuffle, Hazelwood's fowling piece goes off and the shot wounds Hazelwood. Brown flees, and is now wanted for attempted murder. This scene, which causes Julia Mannering to write the passage which begins this post, is, I must admit, highly unlikely.
  • Gilbert Glossin, Esquire, the corrupt lawyer who purchased Ellangowan estate 150 pages back, is now one of the magistrates of the county, and he has decided to diligently pursue the arrest of Mr Brown, in order to gain the favor of the local lords, who have always (rightfully, we are told) despised and shunned him. Glossin puts two-and-two together: Mr Brown is Harry Ellangowan, returned to Scotland. If Harry/Brown becomes known, then Glossin will have no right to Ellangowan estate, as Harry is the true heir and the original auction was illegal. Glossin conspires with his smuggler friends to have Harry/Brown removed from Scotland. "Oh, don't kill him, not if you don't have to," he tells the smugglers. "Leave that to us," the smugglers reply.
  • You can see, of course, where all of this will end, who will marry whom, who will get his comeuppence, etc. The usual exciting stuff.
Like I say, it's a very plotty romance novel, and as the immense chunks of plot swing and collide I am constantly put in mind of Dickens, whose novels all work in this same way: a small group of people are involved in some intrigue, are separated for years, and then brought back together by a series of coincidences while the consequences of their meeting become increasingly dire. Good stuff. This is exactly the sort of structure I am incapable of creating as a novelist.

I thought I'd quote more of the novel in this post, but apparently I'm not doing that. It's a good book, even if I point out the ridiculous nature of the plot. I don't read for plot, so I am not put off by the ridiculousness. But here, here's a bit from the middle of the book, where Scott gives us a couple of chapters that describe, in some detail, all of the manly arts of hunting as were popular in Scotland in the mid-late eighteenth century:
Without noticing the occupations of an intervening day or two, which, as they consisted of the ordinary silvan amusements of shooting and coursing, have nothing sufficiently interesting to detain the reader, we pass to one in some degree peculiar to Scotland, which may be called a sort of salmon-hunting. This chase, in which the fish is pursued and struck with barbed spears, or a sort of long-shafted trident, called a waster, is much practised at the mouth of the Esk and in the other salmon rivers of Scotland. The sport is followed by day and night, but most commonly in the latter, when the fish are discovered by means of torches, or fire-grates, filled with blazing fragments of tar-barrels, which shed a strong though partial light upon the water. On the present occasion the principal party were embarked in a crazy boat upon a part of the river which was enlarged and deepened by the restraint of a mill-wear, while others, like the ancient Bacchanals in their gambols, ran along the banks, brandishing their torches and spears, and pursuing the salmon, some of which endeavoured to escape up the stream, while others, shrouding themselves under roots of trees, fragments of stones, and large rocks, attempted to conceal themselves from the researches of the fishermen. These the party in the boat detected by the slightest indications; the twinkling of a fin, the rising of an airbell, was sufficient to point out to these adroit sportsmen in what direction to use their weapon.

The scene was inexpressibly animating to those accustomed to it; but, as Brown was not practised to use the spear, he soon tired of making efforts which were attended with no other consequences than jarring his arms against the rocks at the bottom of the river, upon which, instead of the devoted salmon, he often bestowed his blow. Nor did he relish, though he concealed feelings which would not have been understood, being quite so near the agonies of the expiring salmon, as they lay flapping about in the boat, which they moistened with their blood. He therefore requested to be put ashore...
I think we'll all go ashore at this point, but first I note that one of the fishermen, a certain Gabriel, is of course one of the smugglers involved in Harry's original kidnapping. There is so much looping back with every character in this book that I sometimes feel I'm reading Graham Swift's Waterland.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Ex libris Metro, Tuesday morning edition

Spotted on the bus:

T.E. Lawrence, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom
George R.R. Martin, A Dance With Dragons
Craig Taylor, Londoners
Albert Camus, The Stranger

and other books I was not forward enough to identify.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Worse than Trainspotting: Guy Mannering is uproarious

Maybe it's because I just read Edith Wharton's cheerless Ethan Frome, but I'm finding Walter Scott's Guy Mannering to be a laugh riot. This is my first experience of Scott's writing, and I am delighted, truly happily surprised.

I initially decided to read this novel because I had a brief interest in novels called The Astrologer, which turns out to be the subtitle of Guy Mannering, as the title character is a sometime amateur astrologer though he neither really believes in astrology nor has a firm grasp on the actual methods of the art:
Among those who cherished this imaginary privilege with undoubting faith was an old clergyman with whom Mannering was placed during his youth. He wasted his eyes in observing the stars, and his brains in calculations upon their various combinations. His pupil, in early youth, naturally caught some portion of his enthusiasm, and laboured for a time to make himself master of the technical process of astrological research; so that, before he became convinced of its absurdity, William Lilly himself would have allowed him 'a curious fancy and piercing judgment in resolving a question of nativity.'

On the present occasion he arose as early in the morning as the shortness of the day permitted, and proceeded to calculate the nativity of the young heir of Ellangowan. He undertook the task secundum artem, as well to keep up appearances as from a sort of curiosity to know whether he yet remembered, and could practise, the imaginary science[...]

It will be readily believed that, in mentioning this circumstance, we lay no weight whatever upon the pretended information thus conveyed. But it often happens, such is our natural love for the marvellous, that we willingly contribute our own efforts to beguile our better judgments. Whether the coincidence which I have mentioned was really one of those singular chances which sometimes happen against all ordinary calculations; or whether Mannering, bewildered amid the arithmetical labyrinth and technical jargon of astrology, had insensibly twice followed the same clue to guide him out of the maze; or whether his imagination, seduced by some point of apparent resemblance, lent its aid to make the similitude between the two operations more exactly accurate than it might otherwise have been, it is impossible to guess; but the impression upon his mind that the results exactly corresponded was vividly and indelibly strong.
That's a good joke, the book's principle joke: Walter Scott does not believe in astrology. The reader presumably does not believe in astrology. Guy Mannering does not believe in astrology. And yet, despite us all agreeing that astrology is "imaginary science," the fates of two (at least) of the book's characters will follow the courses of the horoscopes that Mannering has cast for them. Also, let it be noted that a gypsy witch's prognostications at her spinning wheel also support the work Mannering has done by way of prediction. All of this is terribly funny, as are Scott's character sketches whenever someone new walks into the scene. Great stuff, really great. The Scots dialect gives me a headache, though. It's worse than Trainspotting.

I will probably not write about the plot much (what do I care about plot?) but I plan to quote more of Scott's jokes as I read.