Bloody Good Reads: Into the Fire, by Manda Scott

I first heard Manda Scott talk about her book?Into the Fire at a dinner in Windsor some three years ago. The premise that she described that night was two parts thrilling?to one part bonkers – it had to do with Joan of Arc – and I admit to wondering how anyone could spin a story out of the elements she was describing.

Three years down the line, and I have just finished the book Manda was describing. It’s still two parts thrilling?to one part bonkers. But in a very, very good way.?Into the Fire is also a blood-drenched, vivid, imaginative and exciting novel, the best word for which is probably ‘lusty’.

‘Lusty’ is a?laughably word to describe?to a dual-timeline narrative that tells the story of Joan of Arc through the eyes of an English spy, interweaved with a contemporary police procedural set in Orl?ans about a brilliant female detective investigating a series of fires. But ‘lusty’ is what it is, not least because this is a book just?dripping in lust. I have an unprovable belief that women are better at writing than sexual desire than men are, because women are better at writing about the sensations of the body, and the scenes in which one character fancies another in this book are heart-pumpingly phwoaarr.

The other thing I loved about the book is how it framed the historical?world inside the modern one. The dual-timeline narrative means we are constantly being tugged from the 15th to the 21st centuries.?One key aspect of this is loyalty, the perception of loyalty, and the way those things have shifted. In the confused mess of loyalties that was France in the Hundred Years War, alliances could?shift and change as frequently as the clouds above the Loire, but in the modern world our loyalties are more fixed. The evil of the modern world is the acquisition of power at any costs, against the constraints of loyalty; in the world of the 15th century, a character has to be tugged out of the everyday shifts in loyalties by a new kind of allegiance to something strong and powerful and almost otherworldly, in the form of the Maid of Orl?ans. The Maid is a symbol, of a new and powerful kind, and the other link?between the worlds of the past and present is our continuing need for symbols, and the way this need opens us up to manipulation.

But I’m overthinking this. Into the Fire is above all else massively entertaining. Its intellectual framework is solid, but Manda Scott wears her research lightly. This isn’t a book that lectures or strokes its chin.?It?has a unique and daring conceit at its heart, one that Manda has talked about publicly on more than one occasion but not one that I will mention here. But she lands it – oh my word, she lands it.


Susan Cooper! Susan Cooper!

They say you shouldn’t meet your heroes. What a load of twaddle. Why would you not want to meet people who’ve been important in your life, without even knowing it? Isn’t it always wonderful to find that behind those words, those images, that performance there is a human being just like you, only better?

Last night I met and (gasp!) spoke to Susan Cooper. I was 10 years old when I read?The Dark Is Rising and still think it’s my favourite fantasy novel of all. I read the rest of the sequence over the next 12 months, and then read the books so often that my original Puffin Editions fell apart and I had to replace them in 1988 with new ones. And last night Susan signed that 1988 edition.



Susan was in town to promote her new book,?Ghost Hawk, which I have but still need to read. She was interviewed with enjoyable fanboy enthusiasm by Marcus Sedgwick.


Susan talked about how?The Dark is Rising?was written by a homesick woman living in America, and how the landscapes of Buckinghamshire, Cornwall and Wales which are so vivid in those books could not have been written without that homesickness. I love that idea – of a powerful writer bringing those landscapes back to life?for herself through words.

And as she signed my book, she said: ‘Lloyd. Good Welsh name, that.’

Safe to say, this hero encounter was a million miles away from disappointing.

Gladwell explains himself

Malcolm Gladwell has a legion of critics, and he rarely defends himself against them directly – I guess his book sales, and his reach, are testament enough to what he does so uniquely. Which is why this reaction to criticism from one particular source – the social scientist Christopher Chabris – is so interesting. It almost amounts to a Gladwell manifesto:

The kinds of people who read books in America seem to have no problem with my writing. But I am clearly a bee in the bonnet of some of the kinds of people who review books in America. I think this has to do with the way in which my books are written. I write in the genre of what might be called ?intellectual adventure stories.? Books like David and Goliath combine narratives and ideas from academic research in an attempt to get people to look at the world a little differently. I have always tried to be honest about the shortcomings of this approach. Stories necessarily involve ambiguity and contradiction. They do not always capture the full range of human experience. Their conclusions can seem simplified or idiosyncratic. But at the same time stories have extraordinary advantages. They can reach large numbers of people and move them and serve as the vehicle for powerful insights. The overwhelming majority of social scientists that I have encountered in my career appreciate this trade-off and respect writers like me for the efforts we have made to use storytelling to bring the amazing worlds of psychology and sociology to a broader audience.

via Malcolm Gladwell?s David and Goliath: He explains why Christopher Chabris? criticisms of his book were unreasonable.


Anthea Bell and Asterix

I came across a nice little interview with Anthea Bell, who along with Derek Hockridge translated the great Asterix books I grew up with (she translates the latest ones on her own, but I stopped reading them after Goscinny died).

I’ve always been fascinated by the extent to which the books ‘changed’ in the translation, because I remember reading them in French for school and not finding them nearly as amusing. I’m sure they are to native French readers, but the wordplay in the English translations was spectacular. Bell talks a a good deal about this in the interview:

Goscinny spoke good English – which comes through in the funny English-style expressions the characters use

He spoke excellent English. While he was alive he was the one who gave the go-ahead to all of the translations and I visited him in Paris to discuss what to do about the British accents.
I am not completely happy with it, but the only solution seemed to be to adopt a dated style of vocabulary such as you might find in the novels of PG Wodehouse, set in the early 20th Century. It couldn?t be as good as the French, but Goscinny approved of it. I had them say a lot of ?I say old chap, jolly good, what ho! Old fruit…? he laughed at ?old fruit? and said he wished he?d thought of that – ?vieux fruit.? The book laughs at the idea that the Britons knock off battles at 5pm for a cup of tea, things like that. I think the rugger match is a brilliant scene.

One thing about Asterix that is similar to English humourous writing is that it tends to be kindly. You see the Romans bashed about, but there?s no bloodshed.

How long would it take you and Derek to do a typical album?

There is no answer to that. The jokes would sometimes come overnight. You puzzle away thinking of references and allusions – and you?ve got to fit the length of the speech bubbles and it must fit the expressions on the characters? faces and if there is a pun or an extended passage of wordplay it?s no good doing it literally because then it?s not funny anymore.

Some of the later ones by Goscinny have long passages of extended literary allusions. In Le Cadeau de C?sar [Caesar?s Gift] Asterix duels with a Roman soldier and he does it in the character of Cyrano de Bergerac, it?s wonderful, it goes on for almost a page. I sat looking at that and thought ?the most famous swordfight in English literature is probably Hamlet and Laertes,? and the whole thing was done with quotations from Hamlet in the end.

When you make a change because the British won?t understand a cultural allusion, are the French publishers OK with it?

Yes, we don?t do anything without permission from the French. Uderzo only speaks French, so he has the books checked by a lovely Englishwoman who lives in Paris. Her mind and mine work very much alike.

What happens when you are going to do a new translation – do you get a script?

In the latter ones, it?s been a script or lately a CD, labelled ?confidential.?

Translating the character names must have been a challenge

Yes – there are 400 of them now. The druid Panoramix could have been kept as Panoramix in English, but the name Getafix presented itself as if on a plate. Some people say they are shocked, but I have a perfectly good explanation, which is that there is a theory that the ancient peoples used standing stones as an astronomical observatory to ?get a fix? on the stars. In a way I regretted losing the dog?s name Id?fix [id?e fixe – an obsession], which could have been understood in some circles in England, but not universally and there again Dogmatix presented itself on a plate. There are many English words ending in ?ous? and those come in handy for the Romans – we had two soldiers called Sendervictorius and Appianglorius.

I love that idea of a ‘lovely Englishwoman in Paris’ who checks the cultural allusions. The whole process seems incredibly civilised and rather lovely. Which is what you’d expect from a project that produces characters with smiles like these:


Actor! Actor! ? Niall Anderson on actors writing novels

A lovely piece by Niall Anderson, which somebody with a chequebook and the remnants of a media business should republish and pay him for. This on Dirk Bogarde’s novels, for instance:

Read enough of them, though, and you begin to notice a certain recurring theme: that rich people can have it hard, too. You also begin to notice a recurring character. He is male and eternally middle-aged. He is English, sexually ambiguous, and in self-chosen exile. He may or may not write an annual bestseller. (He might also, at this stage, start to remind you of someone.) Shortly before the novel begins, something will have happened to him that has allowed him to figure out the complete meaning of life. He never overplays this, or expects other people to understand such dearly-bought and dreadful knowledge; nevertheless, everybody who comes to him ? that is to say, everybody else in the entire novel ? leaves with a sad sense of having met a man who just knows.

via Actor! Actor! ? MostlyFilm.

Laura Morgan on ITV’s Poirot

A quite lovely and very perceptive ramble around ITV’s adaptations of Poirot, in honour of the final series, which is coming this year:

At her best Agatha Christie is very funny, and this is often evident in the pairing of Poirot and his hapless sidekick. The early ITV series, in which both characters invariably appeared, were ? violent deaths notwithstanding ? feelgood TV. They were light-hearted and witty and they spoke of an age of elegance, and painted an affectionate and studiedly beautiful portrait of an England that we would have liked to know, even if it never really quite existed. The attention to detail, both in the scripts and the production, was impeccable; the 1930s costumes and interiors almost ? almost ? as pleasing as the plots.

via Curtain Call ? MostlyFilm.

The Harold Bloom of Missouri Jail

I embed a lot of delightful web stuff over on my Tumblr, I’ve Said Too Much. It’s a handy place to save the ephemeral, the funny, the sad, the inriguing – the flotsam and jetsam of everyday websurfing. Normally, I’d embed something like This American Life’s 2002 show Act V over there. But when it came up on my run this morning, it was just so extraordinarily moving, human and interesting that I wanted to put it here.

I’m only halfway through, but already Big Hutch’s reading of Hamlet – or, more accurately, his rewriting of Hamlet in a prison setting – has got me thinking about story and character and challenges and conflict. His description of how a prison setting could give new resonance to Hamlet’s dilemma is chilling. He describes a society where a self-imposed personal honour becomes more and more potent while the normal self-respect that comes from being a contributing member of that society becomes ever harder to attain. It’s the rigid Catch-22 which every poorly educated male in the West now faces. Hutch is Hamlet is Us.

Some writers on reading

Jennifer Egan, photo by Pieter M. Van Hattem/Vistalux

Some thoughts from clever people on reading and where it fits in our lives.

First, Jennifer Egan, in a wonderful, wonderful, wonderful piece on becoming a writer:

My advice is so basic. Number one: Read. I feel like it’s amazing how many people I know who want to be writers who don’t really read. I’m not convinced someone wants to be a writer if they don’t read. I don’t think the problem is that they need to read more; I think they might need to readjust their life goals. Reading is the nourishment that lets you do interesting work. To be reading good things. I feel that you should be reading what you want to write. Nothing less.

Beautifully said, I think. And it makes me want to read Jennifer Egan in particular (I haven’t, yet).

But on the other hand, this from Geoff Dyer:

Back home there are plenty of books that I’ve not read and yet, gazing blankly at my shelves, all I can think is, There’s nothing left to read. Hoping to lance the boil, to get to the heart of the matter in the course of a transatlantic flight, I bought—but couldn’t face reading—Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader and Alberto Manguel’s A History of Reading. Having resigned myself to not reading them (or any of the other books I’d bought for the flight), I scavenged around for anything to read: the in-flight magazine, the duty-free catalog, the emergency evacuation procedure. And yet, at the same time that I am ready to read scraps like this, I am an overdiscriminating reader. I am always not reading something in the name of something else. The opportunity cost of reading a given book is always too great. Some books, obviously, are a waste of one’s eyes. To feel this about airport blockbusters is perfectly normal, but I feel it is beneath me to read Jeanette Winterson, for example, or Hanif Kureishi. In fact, most so-called quality fiction that is story-driven seems a waste of time (time that, by the way, I have in abundance). This would be fine if I could transpose a reluctance to read James Hawes into a willingness to read Henry James, but I am unable to get beyond the first five paragraphs (i.e., four sentences) of The Golden Bowl.

I should say that comment is very much taken out of context. It’s funny, cynical, bleak and interesting all at the same time. I’m glad I read it. So, there, some irony too.

And finally, this little exchange on Twitter with the one-and-only Norman Geras, on the subject of when it’s right to abandon a book:


Vonnegut on story shapes, with added video

A while back I linked to a story about Kurt Vonnegut’s playful story shapes, which plot traditional stories onto an x/y axis, with happiness on the y and time on the x. Turns out there’s a video of Vonnegut’s talk, which Open Culture pointed me too.

It’s a lovely and charming thing, this video. I never saw Vonnegut speak, but the voice I hear in his stories and his other writing is right there on stage: funny, clever, wanting to be enjoyed but with an edge as well. There’s a bunch of other YouTube videos about Vonnegut, and they all evince the same qualities.

Here’s the story shapes video:

Here’s a little video treatment of Vonnegut’s eight rules of short story writing:

Here’s Vonnegut talking about censorship, and “not making a damn difference”:

And I was going to embed Fox News’ laughable Vonnegut obituary, but why spoil a perfectly nice day?