The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Quick round-up of fables, the fabulous, and general folderol.

I zipped at high speed through Anna Maria Ortese's The Iguana till about the half-way mark after which my attention flagged. A rich Milanese nobleman in search of some property to acquire lands on a mysterious island ostensibly part of the Portuguese empire where he encounters a bunch of decadently poor aristocrats and their magical maid - the sentient iguana of the title. The book is meant to be a series of allegorical chapters that meander between the fantastic and an exploration of an effete man's psyche as it flips between pity and macabre paranoia. I was unable to finish it, but it is considered one of the best post-war Italian works, so let not my impatience stop you.

Knud Romer's Nothing But Fear is a thinly-veiled fictionalised autobiography. His mother is German and reviled for that fact in the little Danish village he lives. The hatred of the locals extends to his entire family. His relatives will have no truck with his father or mother. His schoolmates torture him. His mother, a generally sunny personality, has a darker emotional side. His father, a simple, methodical and socially awkward man, isolates himself in response to the antipathy of the villagers. The book describes Knud's parents' lives before and during the Second World War, and his own life from his childhood. It was received with acclaim for its harsh beauty of recollection, and criticised as essentially a false memory. It appears that in reality Knud Romer or his family wasn't quite as badly treated as he portrayed it. Another fable, then.

I'm pummelling in fits and starts through Mary Robison's Why Did I Ever, a collection of several hundred little chapters, each one of which propels the narrator's catastrophe of a life. Her son appears to have been raped; her daughter is a drug-addict; she has had several collapsed marriages; she loves her children to distraction; she is suspicious and somewhat supercilious about her younger lover; she goes on long pointless drives across the southern states of the US; her scriptwriter job is going nowhere. It is a cleverly written book with a wonderful gift of language, but I am as yet unable to decide if all that the narrator describes is real or entirely in her head.

Fritz Leiber is one of the greats of the fantasy tradition, and his Fafhrd and Grey Mouser series is among his best-loved. I picked up Book 6: Swords and Ice Magic at the book exchange on a platform of my local railway station, which, of the 4 volumes lying there, was the only one fewer than 200 pages long. The first few chapters are monotonous - random villains are despatched by Death to assassinate the two heroes and are promptly despatched by them; beautiful women, most younger than 18, cavort with them; they speak to each other in a quaint tongue (very in cheek); and sundry gods vie for supremacy. If you were to sit and read a sequence of these Lankhmar tales, you'd very quickly tire of them. They're not much different from, say, the Adventures of Amir Hamza, where Hamza's tricksters see through the villainous tricks of Afrosiyab's minions, use magic to extricate themselves from any trap, seduce sedulous women and convert them to the true faith, and, in general, prove completely immune from harm. But the last few chapters of Swords and Ice Magic try to add a bit more meat to the tale of the heroes by introducing a longer story arc: a massive fleet of Mingols try to despoil and pillage their way through Newhon, and the heroes have to try to stop them. Unlike other stories in the fantasy genre, the Mingols are not a faceless horde that can be exterminated, and Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser do try to come up with a way to prevent senseless slaughter. That - and Leiber's sense of humour - however, were probably the only saving grace in this book.


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